U.S. air-safety regulators likely acted improperly in the way they authorized Southwest Airlines Co. to begin flights between California and Hawaii last year, according to the main government agency that handles federal whistleblower complaints.

The preliminary conclusion by the Office of Special Counsel pertains to a Federal Aviation Administration employee’s allegations that agency managers gave the carrier preferential treatment by rushing the approval process and cutting corners in other ways. The counsel’s staff “found…

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