But the FAA never issued a directive requiring the inspections, and on April 17, the second engine failure hit Southwest.
The FAA’s critics said they believe the air travel agency’s bid to work more closely with carriers sometimes slows its reaction to serious problems.
“The airlines are dictating to the FAA what they think should happen versus the FAA saying ‘No, you are going to do this right now,’” said Peterson, whose union represents some airline mechanics,but not those at Southwest. “In the old days, we would have had an airworthiness directive and we would be doing the work on the engines right now.”
Officials at the aviation agency rejected the idea that they had moved too slowly to make the inspections mandatory, saying they acted purposefully after the 2016 Southwest incident.
“The FAA’s top priority is, and always will be, ensuring operators follow our rules and regulations,” the agency said in a statement.
William J. McGee, a consumer advocate and author of the 2012 book, “Attention All Passengers,” said the FAA and airlines do not need to have an antagonistic relationship, but they shouldn’t be too close, either. “The FAA should be more aggressive in ensuring that, when there is a problem, there is a fix,” said McGee, a former flight operations manager for three airlines. “I don’t think that them saying, “Trust us, we got this,’ is good enough.”
The FAA’s relationship with the airlines has evolved over the decades, with an emphasis recently on working collaboratively, when possible. Charles Leocha, co-founder of Travelers United, a consumer watchdog, cited the FAA’s shift in 2015 to a new “compliance philosophy” that called for a “just culture” in its work with the airlines. The agency explained at the time that a “‘just culture’ is one that has both an expectation of, and an appreciation for, self-disclosure of errors.” It also called for “due consideration of honest mistakes, especially in a complex system like the National Airspace System.” Leocha said that this collaborative approach to problem-solving “allows for some issue corrections to be delayed.”
The FAA denied that collaboration with the airlines had made it less vigilant. “When the FAA encounters intentional reckless behavior, flagrant violations, or refusal to cooperate in corrective action by carriers, it undertakes legal enforcement actions,” the agency said in a statement to NBC News. “If an air carrier is unwilling or unable to comply with laws and regulations, the agency can – and does – revoke the company’s ability to operate.”
As the discussion of whether inspections of the CFM56-7B engines should be mandatory continues, Southwest has not responded to questions about how many engines it inspected after the 2016 breakdown. Following Tuesday’s incident, the airline said that all of the engines in its fleet would be checked within 30 days. The GE-Safran partnership said it would send 40 technicians to aid in the effort.
At least two other carriers — Korea Air Lines and Japan Airlines — said they planned to carry out voluntary inspections of the engines. And American Airlines said it started that work last year, when the FAA had begun to consider whether to make the work mandatory.