Southwest overhauls ATOS during fallout from missed inspections

Washington DC
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Southwest has undertaken significant changes to the FAA-mandated Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS) as part of the fallout from a $10.2 million fine levied against the carrier in 2008 for missed aircraft inspections.

Roughly a year after FAA issued the penalty the agency and Southwest finally settled the payment on 9 March. The fine was cut to $7.5 million after FAA considered certain Southwest assertions that "certain facts and circumstances alleged" might not constitute violation of Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), and Southwest's current and remedial efforts to cure deficiencies.

The highly-publicized violation was Southwest's operation of 46 Boeing 737s on 59,791 flights after the carrier missed fuselage inspections required under an airworthiness directive (AD) issued in September 2004.

FAA in its agreement with Southwest outlined significant safety and compliance initiatives undertaken by the carrier since the lapsed inspections. Among those initiatives was the hiring of consultant JDA Aviation Technology and Solutions to assess the carrier's regulatory compliance and ATOS conformance.

DOT's Office of Inspector General (OIG) was tasked to perform several audits of FAA oversight after the Southwest incident, with one examination focusing solely on ATOS.

"Our work at SWA [Southwest] and other carriers found weaknesses in FAA's national program for risk-based oversight, ATOS," says OIG. "At SWA, multiple missed ATOS inspections allowed AD compliance issues in SWA's maintenance program to go undetected for several years."

System-wide problems with ATOS were identified by OIG as far back as 2002 when it found "inconsistent inspection methods across FAA field offices for various carriers". OIG cited FAA inspector confusion over how to conduct ATOS inspections and access risks.

After bringing in a consultant FAA says the Southwest project "involves the rewrite of the entire Maintenance Procedures Manual to ensure compliance with FARs as well as ATOS".

In addition to the manual overhaul FAA says Southwest added three new chapters covering AD management, the continuing analysis and surveillance system (CASS) and maintenance inspection programs.

FAA highlights the complete rewrite of the Southwest manuals to add industry best practices and compliance with ATOS "exceeds the requirements of the FARs and should promote safety and regulatory compliance".

OIG has not yet released its ATOS audit.