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FAA Probes Southwest Airlines Over Baggage Weight Differences



Federal air-safety regulators are investigating

Southwest Airlines


LUV -0.52%

for widespread failure to accurately track the overall weight of controlled bags loaded into each of their rays, according to governmental and internal city documents.

The Federal Aviation Administration's annual civilian probe, showing the documents, found systemic and significant errors with employee calculations and baggage uploads, resulting in potential discrepancies when pilots calculate starting weights. The inaccuracy ranged from a few dozen pounds to more than 1

,000 pounds compared to what the paperwork indicated, sparking disputes between the company and some agency inspectors on potential security implications.

In an email to The Wall Street Journal last week, an FAA spokesman confirmed the investigation and said the agency has ordered "a comprehensive solution to the methods and processes used" by the airline. "The FAA will not end the investigation until it is satisfied that Southwest's corrective actions are consistent and persistent," the spokesman's email added.

The agency has not decided to impose fines or other penalties, according to people familiar with the investigation, which has not been reported before.

  A Southwestern Western spokesman has said the airline has fully cooperated with the FAA and reports voluntary cases to increase security.

A spokesman in the southwestern province said the airline has collaborated fully with the FAA and voluntarily reports problems to improve safety.


Photo:

Laura Buckman / Bloomberg News

In the e-mail response to questions from the Journal, a southwest spokesman said it has fully cooperated with the FAA and reports voluntary cases to increase security. He called the company's negotiations with the agency in a "routine dialogue". To emphasize that the agency has not imposed fines or taken other formal enforcement actions, the spokesman said that the exchange with the FAA "does not constitute a finding of non-compliance." The airline said it plans to capture new baggage counter procedures by the end of the year.

Unlike other major US airlines, Southwest is not dependent on computer-controlled scanners to ensure accurate counts as bags are piled into the air by airplanes. Instead, the carrier has ground crew counting bags. No matter how the tents count, the airlines use average bags to calculate the total weight of checked baggage. During the investigation, the Southwest FAA told the system that the system had "less than less risk" for passengers, according to documents.

But some FAA inspectors expressed concerns that in extreme circumstances, such as engine failure at start, an aircraft could experience handling difficulties. Pilots indicate start speed and pressure, depending on total flight weight and how it is distributed, including passengers, fuel and cargo content.

There have been no southwestern accidents related to suspected weights, and the probe is described by the FAA in documents as a high priority "investigation investigation" – continues.

Dozens of investigative updates and other FAA documents reviewed by the journal prepare a pattern of failure in accordance with regulatory requirements that pilots have confirmed up to date total flights. The files also include extensive correspondence dating back to January 2018, between agency managers and southwestern officials about various views on security implications.

Southwest over the past year has implemented procedural changes and internal reporting measures, which repeatedly tell the FAA in documents that rodent problems with manual bags and weight calculations fall well within the safety margins of their fleet of

Boeing

737. Distracted luggage handlers and last-minute luggage compartments are a major cause of loading discrepancies, according to Southwest.

According to challenging FAA concerns, Southwest is embracing technology. At the turn of the year, the spokesman said the carrier plans to introduce computerized scanning of all individual bags on the asphalt, just before they are loaded into the cargo holds on their more than 700 Boeing 737 rays.

In an January 11 letter, Jeff Hamlett, Southwest Senior Director of Regulatory Compliance, a senior FAA inspector told scanners to be slated to be phased in first in Seattle, San Diego and Sacramento. Then his letter said that the carrier "will review the test results and evaluate a phase filling" nationwide.

In the same letter to the local FAA manager, Southwest, carrying more domestic passengers than any other carrier, requested that the investigation be closed without further FAA action, quoting "our efforts and responses to your office." [19659006] Some FAA officials have estimated in interviews that at certain times, at least a third of Southwest's approximately 4,000 daily flights could have operated with inaccurate weight data, a figure Southwest does not agree with. The Southwestern spokesman said there is no current information to support the estimate, "especially given the controls and adjustments we have implemented."

It is unusual for this type of FAA survey to last so long without any temporary enforcement action, according to government and business officials. The agency and Southwest also have unusually divergent views on what led the probe in the first place, according to these officials.

In the documents, the agency inspectors wrote that the investigation was partly triggered by separate allegations made by a whistleblower and received on a security hotline agency. In contrast, the southwestern spokesman claims that the probe was solely asked by voluntary reports from the airline and its employees.

At the beginning of 2018, when the survey was launched, the FAA reported that "there have been many reports of ground operators and / or aircraft operators that do not follow Southwest Airlines procedures to enter proper and complete weight information" before the start. An early document called it a "high-risk problem".

Incorrect led to fast FAA responses and were considered serious enough to require Southwest physically controlled number of bags loaded daily from 25% of their flights. This sample was later reduced, at southwest request, to 15%. The airline continues to provide daily status reports to the agency.

In rare cases, FAA documents referred to aircraft with load deviation deviations totaling more than tons. Southwest said it could not comment on weight issues with any particular aircraft due to confidentiality requirements involving voluntary incident reports.

In some documents, Southwest said an error that resulted in a £ 1,500 less than actual starting weight being considered within safety limits. In other documents, the airline said that up to a 10,000 pound error would pose a minor risk. More current and former Boeing 737 captains said they would consider the greater weight loss that was dangerous to rely on for initial calculations. Southwest has said that all its aircraft are typically designed to take off weights over 150,000 pounds.

The investigation is complicated by the fact that the FAA office in the Dallas area monitoring Southwest is facing separate investigation by the transport department inspector general secretary. That the audit focuses on the claim that local office managers have been too compatible with Southwest requests, affecting a number of issues other than weight calculations. In the past, the FAA has said it welcomed the revision and calls it an "opportunity to improve what is already the safest aviation system in the world" and adds that the audit is "designed to identify potential hazards before they become serious problems."

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com


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