According to a new Wall Street Journal report, the FAA is in the process of completing a yearlong investigation into the process Southwest Airlines uses to calculate the weight of the checked bags loaded onto its aircraft. According to documents obtained by the newspaper, the federal airline watchdog agency considers the carrier’s flawed tracking system a “high risk concern.”
Recent reports indicate that Southwest Airlines may be in hot water with federal regulators again. This time, the budget carrier is said to be under investigation for flaws in the way the airline calculates the weight and distribution of baggage loaded onto its passenger jets.
According to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal, rather than using the scale weight of each checked bag, as is the practice of most U.S. airlines, Southwest instead multiplies the pre-calculated average weight of a typical piece of luggage and multiplies that weight by the number of bags loaded onto the plane. Investigators found that this technique resulted in inaccuracies from “a few dozen pounds to more than 1,000 pounds in excess of what the paperwork indicated.”
Southwest Airline officials and FAA investigators have different views of the seriousness of these weight discrepancies. In one communication with the FAA, the company described the inaccuracies to be “less than minor risk.” to the flights. Federal authorities, however, appear to have a less charitable view of potential danger. The agency estimated that as many as a third of the airline’s daily flights could have seriously miscalculated weight and balance figures.
Despite resistance from the airline to alter the way it calculates the weight of passenger baggage, the FAA doesn’t sound likely to back down on this issue. The agency told the Dallas-based carrier it would “not close its investigation until it is satisfied that Southwest’s corrective actions are consistent and sustained.”
The airline has since agreed to move to a system in which scale weights are scanned into a computer as bags are loaded onto planes at its Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA), San Diego International Airport (SAN) and Sacramento International Airport (SMF) hubs. Southwest says it will eventually upgrade to a scanner-based weight and balance process systemwide.
The airline has a tense history with the FAA, culminating in the carrier being hit with a proposed $325,000 penalty in 2015 for allegedly failing to properly inspect aircraft while in service. The carrier was assessed similar fines for purported maintenance lapses in each of the prior two years as well.