The NBC 4 I-Team reviewed two whistleblower investigations by the Federal Aviation Administration including one which involved four Southwest mechanics who work at Los Angeles International Airport.
They allege they were pressured to avoid documenting maintenance issues in planes that could cause delays.
In the report connected to the Los Angeles case, the FAA noted " … while there were no instances observed that indicated a violation of a regulation, or evidence of an aircraft being returned to service in an un-airworthy condition, it was observed that at the SWAA LAX line station, there is the absence of a 'Just Safety Culture'", adding "…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.
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This ultimately leads to a degraded level of safety…." Most of the complaints alleged in the two investigation reports, from October and November 2017, were not substantiated by the FAA.
The FAA did not find Southwest planes were unsafe to fly.
"We are pleased that the FAA corroborated that the atmosphere has been degraded, and the safety culture have been degraded," Lee Seham, attorney for the whistleblowers said.
"These mechanics are now afraid to report damage to the aircraft, " he added. FAA investigators found one employee in a Dallas investigation was questioned by a supervisor after he came forward about corrosion on a weight that balances the airplane's rudder "Instead of praising him, saying thanks for finding the corrosion, he was subject to disciplinary interrogation," Seham said.
That event, the FAA wrote in their report, "lead to the discovery of a systemic issue with the fleet" Southwest Airlines would not speak on camera but in a statement says, in part: "Our Leadership Team in Technical Operations and nearly 2,400 Southwest Airlines mechanics do an extraordinary job keeping our fleet safe and ready to dispatch.
Their work is exemplary and complies with FAA and regulatory requirements. With a fleet of nearly 750 planes and 4,000 flights a day, we have a rigorous and well-run program. Safety has always been our highest priority — from day one to today and always. We are confident that our maintenance policies, procedures, and programs ensure the Safety and airworthiness of our aircraft. We focus on maintaining a Culture of Safety Compliance, the most important thing we do … The perspective of Southwest Employees is the most important contribution toward operating Safely; Intimidation or bullying of any kind is not tolerated."
The airline spokesperson added: "While we do expect our mechanics to work their assigned tasks, we do not prohibit employees from raising safety concerns at any time and, in fact, encourage the reporting of safety concerns through our 24-hour automated Safety Reporting System."
The FAA says it assigned additional inspectors to Southwest maintenance stations last year, which is common when there are concerns about potential safety.
There were no fines or other enforcement action against the airline. The complaints came in the middle of contract negotiations with management. An agreement in principle between the airline and mechanics' union was reached last month.