February 20, 2020
VIA FEDERAL EXPRESS
H. Clayton Foushee
Office of Audit and Evaluation
800 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20591
Re: FAA Response to OIG Report No. AV2020019
Southwest’s Failure to Implement FAA-Mandated Corrective Action and
Continuing Deterioration of Safety Culture Within Southwest Maintenance
Dear Director Foushee:
Our law firm represents the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA)1 and the whistleblowers at Southwest Airlines’ LAX maintenance facility referenced in the Office of the Inspector General’s Report No. AV2020019, dated February 11, 2020. In view of the FAA’s concurrence with the findings and recommendations of the OIG Report, we write to request agency action with respect to two particular items referenced in that report:
(1) Southwest’s failure to implement the Corrective Action mandated by the FAA in response to the agency finding of an absence of Just Safety Culture at LAX, and
(2) the continuing safety implications inherent in what the FAA aptly described as a “breakdown in the relationship” between Southwest and AMFA, including Southwest’s continuing use of litigation to suppress aircraft maintenance write-ups even after the ratification of a collective bargaining agreement.
Both of the issues are referenced at pages 16-17 of the OIG report.
Southwest’s Failure to Implement FAA-Mandated Corrective Action at LAX
Systemwide, Southwest maintenance operations suffer from a degraded safety culture that prioritizes airline schedule over safety. Southwest’s highest-level managers have conceded that Southwest’s “Warrior Spirit” maintenance culture has resulted in the introduction of unairworthy aircraft into the National Air Space (NAS). In a Southwest publication to its employees dated December 6, 2017, Southwest’s Vice President Technical Operations Trevor Stedke confesses:
We had a wing that flew around [that] was damaged from an unknown period of time. ...
We’ve had several dents found to be non-compliant, re-worked without anything documented in our maintenance systems. ...
And you all know that the list goes on and on ... examples of where we ‘re bypassing our policies and procedure. ...
(Attachment A at 10 - Southwest Airlines, It ‘s Your Call, dated December 6, 2017). Stedke identified the degradation of Southwest safety culture as a principal cause of these safety lapses:
There is a perception, I think from some, that all On Time Performance trumps compliance. ... We say compliance but it’s kind of a wink, wink, you know, make sure you get the airplane out....
(Id. at 12)
Vice President of Maintenance Operations Landon Nitschke described Southwest’s maintenance culture in the same disturbing terms:
And, you know, sometimes we hide our compliance issues under the Warrior Spirit, right?
(Id. at 11).
Our law firm has been called upon to represent over twenty (20) AMT whistleblowers throughout the Southwest system, including at maintenance facilities in Dallas, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles (LAX). At LAX, FAA investigators have repeatedly found coercive management practices subverting safety culture to be particularly acute.
In a 2017 investigation of the LAX operations, the FAA concluded:
[A]ll of the mechanics interviewed except two felt pressured and under scrutiny as to whether they were either doing their job correctly or if they were finding too many things wrong with the aircraft. ...
Mechanics are told, “Dallas is watching us’ don’t make us look bad with delays.”
(Attachment B at 4 -- FAA Report of Investigation — Whistleblower Complaint EWB 17634, dated November 16, 2017).
FAA investigators described an environment characterized by: “[F]ear of threats or reprisal. This ultimately leads to a degraded level of safety....” (Id. at 5). Notwithstanding this damning report, a subsequent investigation by the FAA confirmed that conditions at LAX have continued to deteriorate.
In an FAA report, dated February 21, 2019, the agency reported management pressure on AMTs to shortcut maintenance procedures and refrain from submitting reports of aircraft damage was so severe that it constituted a violation of 14 C.F.R. § 1 19.65(d)(3).
As the FAA concluded under the bolded section heading “Corrective Action:”
It was observed, at the SWAA LAX maintenance base, there is the absence of a “Just Safety Culture” within the management. Safety Promotion, a key part of an effective SMS seems to be deficient. There seems to be a lack of an environment of trust, effective communication and the willingness for employees to share mistakes, concerns or failures without the fear of threats or reprisal. This ultimately leads to a degraded level of safety that the SMS is trying to maintain at the highest possible level.
The Investigation Team. along with the AFB-470B Branch Manager, held a meeting with the SWAA Certificate Management Office (CMO) management team to discuss the findings of this investigation. The SWAA principal inspectors understand the nature of the deficiencies and have initiated compliance action documented on PTRS record 1DSW2920190 1058 to track the corrective action.
(Attachment C at 5—FAA Report of Investigation— EWB 18644 dated February 21, 2019).
Notwithstanding the corrective action prescribed by the FAA, Southwest Station Manager Michael Baird testified that no one at Southwest ever spoke to him about the FAA’s investigation or the specific FAA finding that LAX mechanics feel coerced. (Attachment D - Baird Dep. at 49-50). He was never told of the FAA’s finding that, at the LAX maintenance operation, there was an absence of Just Safety culture. (Id. at 70-7 1). Manager Baird testified that, in response to the complaints of LAX AMTs, he was instructed by Western Region Director David Fry to continue to be a “happy go lucky guy.” (Id. at 56). Despite the FAA’s finding of illegal coercive conduct at LAX, Southwest never asked Baird to modify his conduct in any respect. (Id. at 56-57). Consequently, he has not. (Id.).
Our law firm remains in close contact with the six AMT whistleblowers who brought the AIR 21 actions underlying the 2017 and 2019 FAA investigatory reports. These whistleblowers report that there are been no discernible action by Southwest to remediate the coercive culture. The FAA has conducted two separate investigations of Southwest’s LAX maintenance operations and found a federal regulatory violation requiring corrective action. We are requesting FAA follow up so that the prescribed corrective action will be realized.
The OIG Report references an FAA finding that:
“a breakdown in the relationship between Southwest and [the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) raises concern about the ongoing effectiveness of the airline’s safety management system.”
(OIG Report at 16). The quoted language is from a letter by FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Au Bahrarni, dated March 8, 2019, expressing his concern that ongoing litigation between Southwest and AMFA would jeopardize safe operations. More specifically, the FAA requested that Southwest and AMFA “strive to ensure that any judicial order that might result from the litigation does not constrain appropriate safety activities.” (Attachment E).
The FAA’s justifiable concern emanates from a lawsuit filed by Southwest against AMFA and individual AMTs seeking broadly worded injunctive relief that would, inter alia, enjoin actions causing “any delay” of”norrnal airline operations” or “otherwise interfering with the operations of Southwest.” (Attachment F at 14). Significantly, the only unlawful job action alleged by Southwest’s complaint was that AMTs were engaged in a concerted refusal to volunteer for overtime work. (Id. at 6-10).
Southwest commenced the 2017 litigation in the context of negotiations to amend an AMT collective bargaining agreement that had become amendable on August 16, 2012. After four and a half years, AMTs were frustrated with the stagnation of their wages and benefits. The resulting reduction in volunteering for overtime was not the result of an AMFA-sanctioned job action, but rather the determination of demoralized AMTs that they wished to spend less time at work. Nevertheless, in order avoid the cost of litigation and the adverse safety impact of an excessively broad court order, AMFA offered to accept an injunction enjoining any promotion of an overtime boycott.
AMFA legal counsel expressed to Southwest’s attorneys the concern that the improper suppression of maintenance write-ups that already existed at Southwest would be further aggravated by an order that could subject individual AMTs to contempt of court sanctions as a result of reporting aircraft damage.
Despite the fact that the only job action alleged in its complaint concerned an overtime boycott, Southwest rejected AMFA’s settlement offer and continued to press for broad injunctive relief that would adversely impact the reporting of maintenance discrepancies.
In the spring of 2019, after nearly seven years of bargaining, Southwest and its AMTs reached an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, which was subsequently ratified. It was AMFA’s expectation that, with the ratification of the new contract, Southwest would withdraw its lawsuit. However, Southwest has detennined to continue its litigation despite the fact that the impetus for the alleged overtime job action has evaporated. Consequently, the threat of broad injunctive relief that would further suppress the reporting of maintenance discrepancies continues to hang over the AMT workforce.
In sum, the danger to aviation safety presented by Southwest’s litigation, as expressed by FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Ali Bahrami, persists to this day. AMFA and the Southwest AMTs it represents would welcome any assistance that the FAA could provide in this regard.
cc: Matthew E. Hampton
Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Audits
Office of Inspector General
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue, S.E.
Washington, DC 20590
Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety
800 Independence Avenue S.W.
Washington, DC 20591
1 AMFA is the federally certified collective bargaining representative of the Aviation Maintenance Technicians (AMTs) of Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and Horizon Air.