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Transportation Department Dings Southwest Airlines For Lax Maintenance Documentation

ALISA CHANG, HOST:

Millions of Southwest Airline passengers have been flying on planes that have lapses in their maintenance records. That is according to a report set to be issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the next few days. This report criticizes both Southwest and the Federal Aviation Administration's lax oversight.

Wall Street Journal senior special writer Andy Pasztor has reviewed this report, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

ANDY PASZTOR: Good to be with you.

CHANG: So how did this report even come about?

PASZTOR: This was started about 18 months ago, actually from some whistleblower complaints, but also because the inspector general for the Department of Transportation has been looking to determine whether the current safety management systems that the airlines use, which is just a fancy way of saying how they assess risk, whether those systems are working and whether the FAA is actually enforcing regulations and keeping close track of the risks.

CHANG: So the intention was not to just focus on Southwest Airlines.

PASZTOR: Well, Southwest is the initial focus because the whistleblower complaints involved Southwest. But it really is a start of a broader effort to understand how the new enforcement philosophy at the FAA is working.

CHANG: How so? How is the philosophy there changing?

PASZTOR: It has to do with the concept of how you make sure that the safety rules and regulations are complied with. Many years ago, the idea was you punish people who break them. And you find them, and you try to do it that way. Increasingly, the idea is cooperative efforts to identify incipient safety problems and deal with them. The problem is, unless the business side is willing to do something quickly and is willing to share information in a timely and a fulsome way, you may not have the kind of oversight that's necessary. And the report indicates that in the case of Southwest, you did not have the best oversight.

CHANG: Where does the Department of Transportation direct most of the blame here - on the FAA, or on Southwest?

PASZTOR: Essentially, it's a report that says the FAA is ineffective and inconsistent in how it supervises Southwest. There's an example of a flight going into the airport near Hartford, Conn. in horrible conditions, gale-force winds, and it tried to land three times. And on the first attempt, it smashed both wings onto the runway. And then it tried to land two more times. And the FAA was unable to get meaningful answers from Southwest for months about why these pilots did that. How could they continue to try to land in such horrible conditions? And that's an example of the breakdown in the current system.

CHANG: Now has Southwest responded to this story yet?

PASZTOR: They gave us a very long emailed statement which basically said, our system is very good. It's improving every day and, in fact, tried to say that the instances in the report, that they're really examples of how the system works. But I think Congress will have a much different view of it, and I expect both House and Senate committees to look carefully at these results and to push for some changes.

CHANG: Is part of the reason for this breakdown in the system - on the airline side and on the FAA side, is part of the reason money? I mean, realistically, how much more expensive would it be to get airlines like Southwest safer and to get the FAA to be more rigorous in maintaining standards?

PASZTOR: Well, I think money is certainly part of it. The FAA is short of funds. On the airline side, it's an incredibly competitive industry. And more important than that is the idea that the airlines believe that they know what needs to be done.

CHANG: Well, do the airlines have a point? Can they regulate themselves without the FAA?

PASZTOR: Complacency is a big issue here. The U.S. aviation system is so safe, flying billions of - billions with a B - billions of people without a single fatality for many years, that there is a sense of complacency. And I think airlines and manufacturers, when they're confronted by the FAA, basically say, hey, the system is working fabulously well. You know, why should we change anything? But if you're too complacent, of course, safety experts will say that's when things go wrong. And they can go wrong very quickly.

CHANG: That is Wall Street Journal senior special writer Andy Pasztor.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

PASZTOR: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.