I’ve been watching the Southwest Airlines inspections controversy unfold over the past week without much comment (except for one post), trying to make sense of what’s happening. There are some big red flags in the way the FAA has handled this case.
Here’s what’s happened so far:
- On March 15, 2007, Southwest notified the FAA that it had failed to conduct one routine inspection procedure on forty-six of its older Boeing 737 models (from the “Classic” series). These tests look for cracks in the fuselage and are mandated by the FAA due to the age and particular characteristics of this aircraft.
- Southwest claims that the FAA approved a plan to inspect the planes while keeping them in operation over the next ten days. The FAA denies this.
- Southwest continued to fly these planes between March 15 and March 23, when the inspections were completed. Southwest’s inspections revealed that six jets had cracks. They were repaired and returned to service.
- Southwest considered the matter closed by April 2007.
- On March 6, 2008, the FAA announced that it had proposed a $10.2M penalty against Southwest for “deliberately” operating the forty-six aircraft between March 15 and March 23.
- Southwest claimed the FAA had approved its inspection plan, denied that it ever operated unsafe aircraft, and announced an internal investigation.
- On March 11, Southwest grounded thirty-eight aircraft for inspection and found and repaired cracks on four of them.
Here’s what I make of this: once Southwest had divulged its lapse in inspections to the FAA in March 2007, why would it have fabricated approval of its plan by the FAA? Once the company had self-reported, it had every incentive to do what the FAA told it to do. Southwest says it received approval of its plan, and I see no reason why the airline would be lying about that. If the airline had reported the lapse in inspections, the FAA had rejected Southwest’s maintenance plan, and the airline had gone forward with it, there should have been a penalty much earlier. The FAA claims that the fine is for “deliberate violations” of the airworthiness directive. It seems that Southwest did “deliberately violate” this direction during March 15-23, 2007, but representatives of the FAA approved Southwest’s action, making a charge of “deliberate violations” and the accompanying fine unfair.
The House Transportation Committee is holding a hearing on FAA safety on April 3. The FAA was already under scrutiny by Congress for its safety record. According to USA Today, FAA officials turned a blind eye to Southwest’s inspection lapse, allowing the airline to proceed. The agency only took action when, long after the fact, the agency needed political cover. Another reason the action against Southwest might be unfair? There are probably other airlines in the same situation, according to congressional officials. Did the FAA hope to change the subject and use Southwest as a scapegoat? If so, the tables have turned on them. The FAA needs to fix its own house.
Even though the FAA seems to have singled Southwest out for scrutiny rather unfairly, the airline has been shaken by the incident. CEO Gary Kelly has recently admitted that Southwest was “not as compliant . . . or as safe as we could be,” and he may seek to settle with the FAA. I’m looking forward to watching this case unfold.
The best place to get day-to-day updates on l’affaire Sud-Ouest, however, is not the Aviation Policy Blog (although that should not stop you from reading daily!). I recommend:
- Sky Talk, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s aviation blog, which has been all over this story.
- Today in the Sky
- Nuts about Southwest, the airline’s official blog, which posts regular PR updates and which has admirably allowed readers to take the airline to the woodshed (fairly or unfairly) in the comments.
Photo credit: Flickr user old06cphotos. Used through a Creative Commons license.