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Posts Tagged ‘southwest’

Dallas-bound

I’m leaving for Dallas shortly to attend Southwest Airlines’ media day. Look forward to a dispatch or two from Dallas in this space tomorrow. Is there a policy issue you’d like me to ask Southwest about? Let me know in the comments.

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Posts like this remind me of why I love the Southwest Airlines blog:

It’s official, WestJet will be our first international partner and we will be offering travel to some pretty cool destinations all the way to Canada! Okay, I know, it doesn’t feel that international because it is Canada and traveling to Canada is quite simple. But they do speak different languages, eh..and those accents…and the beer…the temperature…the metric system…work with me here…this is start of some really cool stuff.

This blog isn’t just a corporate organ. It speaks with real people’s voices.

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Herb Kelleher, the legendary founder of Southwest Airlines, proponent of low fares, and friend of deregulation, delivered the Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture tonight at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. He reflected on his long career in aviation, on the fundamentals of Southwest, and offered a few comments about the future of the airline industry. As usual, Kelleher’s lecture was full of humor — most of it at his own expense.

Kelleher recounted a number of critical moments in Southwest’s history, from the four years of litigation just to get started to the fight to operate out of Dallas’s Love Field. When Southwest launched with $26 fares, its competitors undercut the price by half. Kelleher said that he would still offer the same fare, but that every customer would get a bottle of whiskey. “We became the largest liquor distributor in the state of Texas!” he chuckled.

Even though almost all the major airlines opposed deregulation, and although observers thought Southwest would get stomped in a competitive environment, Kelleher said, “Southwest Airlines supported deregulation of the airline industry throughout the 1970s.” A sign of deregulation’s success? When Southwest launched, only 15 percent of American adults had been on a commercial airline flight. Today, 85 percent have, although this is not only due to lower fares but also a growing economy and general better standards of living. (more…)

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As I’ve written before, the failure of the FAA in the Southwest Airlines case and elsewhere seems to stem from a personnel problem. The safety inspection chain of command at the agency ignored and abetted an inspector who was consistently neglecting policies and procedures. This is not an indictment of the FAA’s collaborative approach to maintenance inspection. But at the hearing last week, Jim Oberstar and many others (GOP and Dem) criticized the “cozy” relationship between the airlines and the FAA and called for a return to the adversarial approach to regulation. Stung by congressional criticism, the FAA responded by swinging wildly toward austerity, the biggest example of which is this week’s American Airlines fiasco.

A WSJ editorial today pins the blame for the AA cancellations on Oberstar, whom it says the FAA is kowtowing to: “An industry-wide ‘audit’ commenced, and FAA inspectors set about finding something – anything – awry with an aircraft to show Mr. Oberstar and other Congressional overseers that the agency was up to the job of enforcing federal maintenance requirements to the letter.”

The editorial continues:

Mr. Oberstar and other Democrats in Congress would just as soon do to the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product and Safety Commission and other “consumer protection” agencies exactly what they’ve managed to do to the FAA inside of a month’s time. . . .

The FAA fiasco gives us a glimpse of what the world would look like under this reregulatory assault. It would mean that every business misstep, no matter how rare, could potentially result in industry-wide repercussions. Congress would call for more rules and greater enforcement, in the name of “safety.” And regulatory agencies would respond with overkill. The cost of doing business would rise, and consumers would pay for it in higher prices, less convenience or both.

Whether any of this would in fact produce safer toys or food or medicines is beside the point for lawmakers like Mr. Oberstar, whose real goal is to augment Washington’s power vis-a-vis industry. But it’s worth noting that in the case of air travel, safety gains have accompanied less regulation, not more.

We don’t need to change the way the FAA inspects aircraft. We need to change its circle-the-wagons culture and to root out personnel problems. A single Douglas Gawadzinski, left unchallenged, erodes institutional effectiveness. He and his supervisors should be dealt with, all the way up to top safety honcho Nick Sabatini. At the House hearing, Sabatini took “responsibility” for the FAA’s safety lapses. If he means that, he should probably resign. His successor should work not on public appeasement gestures (after this week of cancellations, I suspect the flying public has had it up to here with “safety”) but on sound personnel management.

Flying the Oberstar Skies [WSJ]

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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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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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Airports in the United States are almost always owned and operated by municipal or county authorities. (In a few cases, like Indianapolis and Chicago Midway, private companies have managed airports for the authorities.) These airports lease gates to airports in long-term leases, and then that airline has exclusive use of those gates. Most big-city airports have extra space to accommodate new entrants or airlines wishing expand service, as airlines rarely wish to lease more gates than they need. In some cases, however, gate unavailability has limited the entrance of new carriers. (Issues like this have threatened US Airways international expansion in Philadelphia.)

Airlines who lease gates at airports usually offer the same amenities to all airlines/tenants: baggage facilities, concessions, and the like, which means that gate-lease fees vary little. If there is competition for amenities and fees, it is among airports. For example, Providence and Manchester offered lower fees and attracted discounters like Southwest unwilling to pay the higher fees of Boston’s center-city Logan Airport. The same applies for Miami versus Fort Lauderdale, Orlando International versus Orlando Sanford, and several others. There has been until now little competition within U.S. airports for fees and amenities.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas is now attempting to pull this off. Its only passenger terminal, the Barbara Jordan Terminal, is fully occupied and leased. So, to add significant service, it will need to build more space. But this new space is intended to serve the super-discount airlines like Skybus and Mexico’s vivaAeroBus that Austin wants to attract. Back in June, it began negotiations with GE Commercial Airline Services (GECAS) to build and operate a no-frills terminal at Bergstrom. GECAS would operate the terminal for thirty years, and it would be expressly designed for super-cheap airlines, with neither luggage facilities nor assigned gates. Gate fees at the GECAS terminal would presumably be much less than those at the Jordan terminal. (more…)

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