FAA report cites Southwest pilots in MacArthur taxiway incident
The captain of the Southwest Airlines flight that ran off a taxiway and got stuck in the mud at Long Island MacArthur Airport last year was cited for reckless operation of an aircraft, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
An FAA investigation found that the captain and first officer exhibited "poor cockpit resource management" on the rainy morning of Dec. 27, 2012, when the Boeing 737 rolled off a taxiway onto a grassy infield and became stuck.
Both pilots were cited for failure to obtain permission from air traffic control before entering a taxiway, also a violation of FAA regulations, according to the report. Newsday obtained records about the investigation under the Freedom of Information Act.
The 131 passengers and five Baltimore-based crew members on Flight 4695, which was bound for Tampa, Fla., weren't injured. They were escorted off the stuck plane by fire and rescue crews. The FAA started an investigation after the 6:15 a.m. incident.
Both men in the cockpit recorded zero on the breath test for alcohol, but a passenger told investigators that he thought one of them displayed "odd" behavior before the incident, including acting rushed and unprofessional, according to the investigation records.
An FAA inspector who interviewed the pilot found him calm and said he "did not seem to be acting out of the ordinary," according to the report.
Pilots take safety program
Violation of FAA flight rules can result in suspension or revocation of a pilot's license and fines. In this case, the agency sent pilot-in-charge Timothy A. Welsh, and second-in-command Donald L. McCarthy, both 49, formal letters of investigation and put them in a safety program. Neither pilot had any prior citations, according to the agency.
The FAA describes the program as a "safety partnership" between the agency and airlines.
"Safety issues are not resolved through punishment or discipline," Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said of the program.
Hawkins said the airline has closed its internal investigation after cooperating with federal safety investigators.
Welsh did not return a call seeking comment. McCarthy could not be reached. The Southwest Airline Pilots' Association did not respond to a request for comment.
Welsh declined to make a statement to a second FAA inspector who sought to interview him, according to FAA records.
McCarthy told an FAA official that he was busy looking at the center console while taxiing and didn't look outside the window or at the captain before the plane left the taxiway. He said there was no gust of wind and visibility was not an issue.
John Goglia, an aviation consultant and former National Transportation Safety Board member, said failing to get clearance from air traffic control before entering a taxiway is a "serious" violation of safety regulations.
A gray area of control
But pilots and air traffic controllers disagree over who has control when a plane is in the area between the terminal gates known as the "alley," he said.
"It's a problem that's been brewing," Goglia said. "The area in between the fingers of the terminal -- most control towers have given up control of the alley all the way up to the taxiway. Normally, it doesn't go to enforcement."
The conflict with safe operations happens when "pilots push back thinking they're in the alley, and they're not," Goglia said.
The pilots remained employed with the airline, Hawkins said.
Problems with Flight 4695, which was bound for Tampa weren't just in the cockpit, FAA investigators found.
A flight attendant, Tamar I. Scott, didn't have any government identification when investigators interviewed her, and when the FAA checked her name for FAA certification, they couldn't find one, FAA records show.
Under federal law, a flight attendant for a commercial carrier must hold a certificate of "demonstrated proficiency" issued by the FAA administrator and produce it "within a reasonable period of time" after a federal agency requests to see it.
The FAA investigation documents indicate that Scott's certificate status remains under investigation. Hawkins said he had no information about the status of her certificate. Scott did not respond to a request for comment. The Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents flight attendants, did not respond to a request for comment.
After the plane was pulled from the mud, a Southwest maintenance crew certified the Boeing 737 as airworthy despite a cracked housing on the main landing gear. The crack should have triggered a second inspection of the aircraft, FAA investigators reported.
Hawkins said the airline isn't convinced that the problem was "germane" to the taxiway incident.
"Southwest doesn't believe this type of damage is what Boeing believes would require a phase II inspection," he said.
Both issues have been referred to the FAA's Certificate Management Office for review.