Archive for March, 2008

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: (more…)

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Upcoming House hearings on aviation

I plan to report the April 3 and May 6 hearings.

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1387799373_df19da7d68.jpgI was thinking recently about names of airports. The standard formula in the United States is to name an airport after its locality, and if there are multiple airports, to name it after a local personality or feature. A small proportion of our airports are named after truly national figures, unlike in Latin America or Africa, where airports are frequently named after political or military (or, all too often, political-military) leaders. There are only seven U.S. airports that have ever been named after presidents:

  • Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, Springfield, Ill.
  • Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport, Dickinson, N.D.
  • Harry S. Truman Airport, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (renamed after the islands’ first elected governor in 1984)
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City.
  • Gerald R. Ford International Airport, Grand Rapids, Mich.
  • Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
  • George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston

A look at the list of the one hundred busiest U.S. airports yields these results:

  • 66% of them are named after their location
  • 15% are named after a local or regional figure, almost always a politician (Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska or Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York)
  • 9% are named after a military hero (MacArthur, O’Hare, Mitchell, Logan and others)
  • 6% are named after a national political figure (four presidents, one secretary of state, and one Supreme Court justice)
  • 4% are named after a cultural figure (John Wayne, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and Louis Armstrong)


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  • The FAA’s aviation industry forecast conference is today. Check out what Adrian Schofield has to say about it. [Things with Wings]
  • Don Brown reminisces about the founding of the PATCO successor union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, two decades ago. [Get the Flick]
  • Big Sky closes shop, and Montana communities are left without “Essential” Air Service. (See my take here.) [Aero-News.Net]

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The FAA has filed an action for a $10.2 million fine against Southwest Airlines on account of operating aircraft without conducting a particular routine inspection on them. Here’s the story: For some unstated reason, Southwest failed to conduct “mandatory inspections for fuselage fatigue cracking” on forty-six Boeing 737 Classic-series aircraft from June 2006 to March 2007. Southwest notified the FAA of its lapse on March 15, 2007, and according to the airline, “The FAA approved our actions and considered the matter closed as of April 2007.” Apparently not. According to the FAA, “after Southwest Airlines discovered that it had failed to accomplish the required repetitive inspections, between March 15, 2007 and March 23, 2007, it continued to operate those same 46 airplanes on an additional 1,451 flights. The amount of the civil penalty reflects the serious nature of those deliberate violations.” Southwest is not denying that it operated these flights, and according to a statement from Boeing, “Southwest Airlines contacted Boeing for verification of its technical opinion that the continued operation of SWA’s Classic 737s, for up to 10 days until the airplanes could be reinspected, did not pose a safety of flight issue.” Boeing did not believe the safety of Southwest’s fleet was ever compromised. So, to recap: Southwest thought that the FAA had approved operating the aircraft between discovering the lack of testing and the conclusion of testing, and the FAA says it never approved such a plan.

At the heart of this issue, as best I can see it, is the phrase “deliberate violations.” What did Southwest think constituted FAA approval? We need to wait and see how Southwest officially responds to the FAA’s action to learn more. I’ve queried Southwest, and if I hear more details, I’ll post them. This is a very serious issue. Some observers (including the usual suspects in Congress) are jumping to conclusions, but I think we need to wait and see what else Southwest has to say.

FAA accuses Southwest of ‘deliberate violations,’ proposes $10.2 million fine [ATW Daily News]
We Take Safety Seriously [Nuts about Southwest]

Photo credit: Flickr user Cubbie_n_Vegas. Used through a Creative Commons license

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Yes, this sounds like a good idea: start a low-fare carrier in an era of $100+ oil. Compound that brilliance by making it point-to-point only, but based at an airport with less than 285,000 enplanements in 2006 and a metro area of 300,000 people. Throw in the fact that even scheduled charter services masquerading as airlines are having trouble in that market, and you have the recipe for a great airline!

. . . Well, OK. This might be a recipe for disaster, but at least you can get the city — Charleston, W.Va., in this case — to pony up $3 million to support the theoretical “hometown airline.” Behind this plan is the same guy who did this with Skybus in Columbus, Ohio, and he seems to have come up with a pretty good shtick.

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As of March 5, according to new International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules, English proficiency is now be the required of all pilots and air traffic controllers. In the past, controllers and pilots could communicate in a local language if both spoke it, even though English was the most common standard. More than anything else, this affects communications at major international airports. A number of air disasters have been attributed to language barriers. A pilot I know was once taxiing to the runway at General Mariano Escobedo International Airport in Monterrey, Mexico, and was instructed — in English, as he flies for a U.S. airline — to proceed to a particular location. Over the radio, he heard the tower, in Spanish, direct an Aeromexico MD-88 to the same location. The U.S. pilot speaks Spanish fluently, so he was able to radio the tower and request clarification. Had he not spoken Spanish, there might have been a collision. The implementation of this rule is a concrete step toward making air travel safer.

English to become compulsory for pilots [Telegraph]

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