U.S. government auditors will review a program that allows airlines to avoid penalties for safety problems by self-disclosing them to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General, a watchdog, said on Tuesday that it would examine the voluntary initiative to ensure it is not being misused as happened previously in the case of a major carrier. Congress has requested the review.
The FAA established the program in 2006 to increase safety by allowing airlines to spend resources to fix safety problems rather than spending time trying to settle disputes with the agency.
In a highly critical report two years later, the inspector general's office said FAA safety inspectors had grown too close with Southwest Airlines.
The report said inspectors had allowed the carrier to repeatedly self-disclose violations of FAA repair orders, absolving it of any penalty without ensuring that the company had come up with a solution for the safety issue.
The matter involved 46 Boeing 737s that had not been inspected for potential cracks, a problem that could have led to rapid cabin decompression and crashes.
When Southwest discovered the lapse, FAA inspectors encouraged the airline to formally self-disclose the problem and allowed it to operate those planes on 1,451 flights for eight days, the inspector general's report said.
Southwest later inspected the planes and found fuselage cracks on five, the report said.
The company later was assessed a heavy fine by the FAA.
The Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program is one of at least four self-reporting efforts the FAA has adopted to monitor the industry and its own employees to identify problems and trends and prevent accidents.
Safety experts generally applaud voluntary approaches, saying they increase data available to researchers and can make systems safer if trends are found.
The inspector general's office said its review would look at whether the airlines are meeting FAA requirements when filing reports and whether regulators are evaluating the industry's corrective actions.
The FAA created a non-punitive reporting system for air traffic controllers in 2008 and expanded it this year to include employees who maintain radar installations and other systems. The FAA said that system has yielded enormous data and prompted corrective steps.