The Transportation Department revealed that its investigative arm is conducting a review of how the FAA oversees Southwest Airlines, and whether federal inspectors have gotten too cozy with airline management to do their job.
The news comes in the wake of the Apr. 17 accident involving an engine explosion aboard a Southwest 737 bound from New York to Dallas; one passenger was killed and several more were injured, although the pilot safely landed the plane in Philadelphia.
This comes as the airline was dealt another blow, as eight passengers aboard Flight 1380 have filed suit in a New York court against the airline, Boeing, and several companies that manufactured the engine, alleging that they failed to take adequate steps to prevent the accident.
The DOT audit, to be carried out by the agency’s Inspector General, will focus on the FAA’s regional office in Dallas, where Southwest is headquartered, and will explore allegations that some FAA officials at the local office ignored complaints from inspectors about potential violations.
According to news reports, at least one FAA inspector filed a whistleblower complaint charging that he suffered retaliation from higher-ups at the FAA after he raised concerns about Southwest.
“Recent events have raised concerns about FAA’s safety oversight, particularly for Southwest Airlines,” the DOT Inspector General said in a statement.
The FAA has responded in a statement that it “welcomed” the audit. “The FAA’s oversight system is designed to identify potential risks before they become serious problems and ensure that corrective action is taken,” the agency said, adding that “we constantly strive for safety improvements.”
This is not the first time that the DOT has looked into this issue; the agency, in fact, conducted a wide-ranging audit of Southwest’s maintenance operation ten years ago, after an investigation revealed an overly friendly relationship between federal inspectors and the airline company they were supposed to be monitoring.
Industry experts pointed out that flying is still incredibly safe. The April incident was the first in-flight fatality due to an accident in Southwest’s 47-year history, and it ended a nearly ten-year period of zero passenger fatalities aboard U.S. airlines.