For the last year, the Federal Aviation Administration has been conducting an investigation into Southwest Airlines’ practices for tracking the weight of baggage loaded onto its jets, according to documents seen by the Wall Street Journal. The regulator has reportedly considered these weight inaccuracies to be a “high-risk concern.”
According to the Journal, Southwest Airlines differs from many of its U.S. competitors in its practice of relying on its ground crew to hand count bags rather than using a computer scanner.
Airlines calculate the total weight of luggage in the cargo hold by multiplying the number of bags by the average weight of a single bag. Based on internal documents between the FAA and Southwest, the Journal found that hand counts have resulted in wildly inaccurate weight estimates. From the report:
The Federal Aviation Administration’s yearlong civil probe, the documents show, found systemic and significant mistakes with employee calculations and luggage-loading practices, resulting in potential discrepancies when pilots compute takeoff weights. The inaccuracies ranged from a few dozen pounds to more than 454kg in excess of what the paperwork indicated, sparking disputes between the company and some agency inspectors about potential safety consequences.
The agency hasn’t decided whether to impose fines or any other punishment, according to people familiar with the investigation, which hasn’t been reported before.
The FAA and Southwest Airlines did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Gizmodo. An FAA spokesperson told the Journal that the agency has already ordered fixes to Southwest’s procedures and it “will not close its investigation until it is satisfied that Southwest’s corrective actions are consistent and sustained.”
A spokesperson for Southwest played down the investigation to the Journal saying it was a “routine dialogue” and the documents did not “constitute findings of noncompliance.”
Just how big of a deal are Southwest’s miscounts of luggage weight in the cargo bay? Well, in one documented exchange with the FAA, Southwest officials said that the discrepancies were a “less than minor risk” for passengers. But the FAA’s inspectors told Southwest that in an extreme circumstance, like an engine failure during takeoff, a pilot could have trouble handling the plane if they’ve miscalculated its weight and balance. And FAA officials estimated that in some periods, at least a third of Southwest’s daily flights have taken off with inaccurate counts of luggage weight—in some cases the weight estimates were off by more than a ton.
In a recent letter to the FAA, Jeff Hamlett, Southwest’s senior director of regulatory compliance, explained that the airline will soon roll out luggage scanners in Seattle, San Diego, and Sacramento. A nationwide “phased roll out” will follow those initial test results.