The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s office said Wednesday it will investigate the effectiveness of the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight over Southwest Airlines, saying it had received a complaint about “alleged pilot training deficiencies,” and other “operational issues” at the low-cost carrier.

“Recent events have raised concerns about FAA’s safety oversight, particularly for Southwest Airlines,” Matthew E. Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation audits, wrote in a letter announcing his plans for an audit that will begin later this month. “We are concerned whether FAA’s oversight includes an assessment of the carrier’s ability to identify hazards and analyze and mitigate risks,”

This is the latest in a series of audits Hampton has announced since May, all with the same goal — determining whether the FAA is up to the task as the nation’s top aviation safety regulator. The audit comes two months after an engine on a Southwest Boeing 737 failed in flight, resulting in a passenger’s death. It was the first U.S. airline passenger fatality in more than nine years, and Hampton referenced it in his two-page memo.

“Preliminary reports indicate similarities with a previous engine incident that occurred on another Southwest Airlines aircraft during a 2016 flight, but it is unclear what actions the carrier took to manage the risk to prevent a future failure,” he said. 

In a statement, Southwest said it has a “transparent and professional relationship” with the FAA, and noted the airline has a safety management system approved by the regulator “designed to help us manage and mitigate operational risks and execute safe operating programs and practices.”

However, the statement also said Southwest would embrace the audit’s findings. “We are always seeking new ways to strengthen our practices, and any additional enhancements or oversights into our safety management system that result from this audit … are welcome additions to our safety culture,” it said.

In its statement, the FAA said the agency welcomed the audit but defended its practices. “The FAA’s oversight system is designed to identify potential risks before they become serious problems and ensure that corrective action is taken,” the statement said. “The process is dynamic and requires that the FAA, and the airlines we oversee, constantly strive for safety improvements.”

Complaint Hotline

Hampton’s letter does not include details about alleged Southwest safety lapses, nor did it say the source of the complaint to the government’s safety hotline. Airline employees can complain anonymously if they are concerned about issues at their employer.

Often, the complaints are legitimate. But sometimes they’re not, said Brett Snyder, an airline industry analyst and blogger. Airlines with labor-management tensions may receive more hotline complaints than other carriers, he said. He noted Southwest has had rocky relations with its mechanics union for several years, and union leaders have repeatedly blasted management for not investing enough in maintenance. 

“It is clear that the hotline, by design, is something that doesn’t require any sort of accountability,” Snyder said. “Anyone can report something, and then it’s up to the FAA to determine whether it is real, and whether it needs to be investigated. You never know what someone’s motivation is.”

Audit Schedule

Hampton’s office has a busy schedule of audits covering the FAA.

On Monday, Hampton said his office would examine whether the FAA is doing enough to ensure airlines can safety evacuate an aircraft in an emergency, even as carriers cram more seats on each plane. Airlines must prove they can evacuate an aircraft in 90 seconds or less, but that can be challenging, especially as more travelers try to bring carry-on bags off the aircraft.

“Stakeholders have raised concerns about the validity of the assumptions that drive FAA evacuation standards—and industry tests and simulations for certifying new aircraft—given that the standards have not been significantly updated since 1990,” Hampton said.

And last month, in a similar audit to the one announced Wednesday, Hampton said his office would investigate whether the FAA has been properly monitoring aircraft maintenance procedures at Allegiant Air and American Airlines. That audit was announced just after a CBS 60 Minutes report detailed safety lapses at Allegiant. (An American spokesman said the airline did not know why it was included, saying it was “shocked” by the inspector general’s decision.)

“When 60 Minutes shines this light on the FAA and makes it look pretty terrible, I assume that’s probably what kicked things into gear,” Snyder said. “But I tend to think the FAA probably knows what is real and what is not.”

This story was edited to include a statement from the FAA. It was edited again to include a statement from Southwest.

Photo Credit: The Department of Transportation's Inspector General is investigating the FAA's oversight of Southwest Airlines. Pictured is a Southwest Boeing 737. LM Otero / Associated Press