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ANALYSIS: US regulators turn gaze on aircraft acquired overseas

Whistleblowers at the US Federal Aviation Administration and the US Department of Transportation contend that some aircraft operated by Southwest Airlines that had previously been operated by airlines outside the US remained in service despite having maintenance records that were "alarmingly insufficient," according to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation.

From 2013 to 2017 Southwest added 88 Boeing 737NGs to its fleet that had been previously operated in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, India, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, Oman, Switzerland and the UK, according to Cirium fleets data. Most of the 88 aircraft are leased.

Southwest used several contractors to conduct the required review of maintenance records and, through its Delegated Airworthiness Representatives (DAR) authority granted by the FAA, issued the 88 aircraft Airworthiness Certificates, allowing them to enter revenue service, the Senate committee states.

Discrepancies in the service records discovered in May 2018 by an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI) led to a full review by Southwest of all 88 aircraft. The Dallas-based airline found 360 major repairs that had not been disclosed in the contractors’ initial review. Some aircraft were grounded for immediate evaluation shortly afterward but, as the Wall Street Journal reported 11 November, 38 of the 88 737s still lack complete repair documentation. Cirium fleets data shows that 86 of the aircraft are currently in service.

The FAA's manager for the Southwest Certificate Management Office, John Posey, said in a 29 October letter to Southwest chief operating officer Michael Van de Ven that "Southwest is responsible for the conformity of its aircraft with airworthiness requirements" and that the "FAA is concerned by SWA's slow pace in completing the evaluation of aircraft".

Southwest responded that there is a low risk associated with the aircraft that had yet to be fully reviewed, according to the Senate committee.

The committee also reports that whistleblowers say that Southwest "knowingly relied on a flawed documentation review to issue the original Airworthiness Certificates" and that its own review of documents show that "senior FAA officials were made aware of this issue at least as early as September of 2018".

A LOOK AT OTHER US AIRLINES

Since the March 2019 grounding of Boeing's 737 Max, the US Congress has been on high alert for any potential or perceived lapses in airworthiness certification on the part of the aviation industry. Whistleblowers calling attention to unreliable paperwork associated with aircraft added to US fleets from beyond US borders may be just the latest development in this trend.

Looking at mainline US carriers besides Southwest, Allegiant Air has the most aircraft that had been operated overseas – 78 Airbus aircraft from Egypt, Ireland, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain and the UK. All 78 aircraft are leased.

Alaska Airlines has four Airbus A320s that had previously been operated by Jazeera Airways in Kuwait. All four are leased.

American Airlines has just one leased aircraft in its fleet that had been previously operated in a foreign country, an Airbus A319 that had been operated by Mexicana Airlines.

Delta Air Lines has 41 Boeing aircraft that originated from outside the US – from Bahrain, Brazil, China, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and Thailand. Delta owns nearly all 41 aircraft.

Frontier Airlines has five leased A320s that previously operated in India, the UK, the Philippines and Japan.

Hawaiian Airlines has three Boeing 717-200s from Australia; Hawaiian owns all three aircraft.

Spirit Airlines has two A320s that had been operated in Bulgaria and two A319s that had been operated in Mexico. All four aircraft are leased.

Sun Country Airlines has 20 leased 737s previously operated in Argentina, Australia, China, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the UK.

United Airlines has 31 aircraft acquired from overseas operators – 26 Airbus, four Boeing and one ATR planes from China, Turkey, Venezuela and Panama. Most of the aircraft are leased.

JetBlue Airways has no aircraft in its fleet acquired overseas.

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