Be Careful Before Deciding Southwest Was Unsafe

This is definitely the hot topic of the last couple days, and I must admit I’m still trying to sort it all out. This is what I’ve put together so far (with the help of some good reporting from the Dallas Morning News).

Back in 2004, the FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive (AD) saying that operators of certain 737s needed to inspect their aircraft for fatigue cracks. On March 15, 2007, the airline notified the FAA that it actually hadn’t completed all the inspections necessary on all the aircraft and it would do it immediately. Up until that point, the airline had flown almost 60,000 flights with those aircraft without knowing there was an issue. For that, the FAA has proposed a relatively minor fine of $200,000.

The inspections were completed between March 15 and March 23, 2007. During that time, they didn’t pull the planes out of service completely, with the blessings of the FAA, and they actually operated an additional 1,451 flights even though they knew they hadn’t done the inspections. For that, the FAA threw down a major $10m fine.

These, of course, are serious issues, but the media and a certain Congressional rep have blown this way out of proportion to try to scare everyone. It all comes down to this letter from the FAA to Southwest detailing the charges. You’ll notice the following.

The aircraft . . . were unairworthy when they were operated on the flights above because the required AD inspections had not been accomplished.

Oh boy, the media had a field day with this one. CNN put out an article entitled, “Records: Southwest Airlines flew ‘unsafe’ planes” and Rep Oberstar was quoted as saying that “The result of inspection failures, and enforcement failure, has meant that aircraft have flown unsafe, unairworthy, and at risk of lives.”

But before you freak out and stop flying Southwest altogether, let’s review what exactly it means when an airplane is “unairworthy.” It sounds pretty scary, but in this situation, it’s more of a technical description than anything else. If an aircraft has not complied with an AD by the required date, the aircraft is automatically considered unairworthy. If you want to read the entire definition, take a look at our National Policy on Airworthiness Certification of Aircraft and Related Products. Ok, maybe it’s best if I just point you in the right direction. In section 45 on page 20, you will see described the “Basic Eligibility Requirements.” It says that “Before a standard airworthiness certificate can be issued, the applicant must show the following . . . All applicable ADs have been complied with . . . . .”

So as you can see, this was more of a technical description as opposed to saying that the planes were truly unsafe. But that doesn’t mean that they weren’t. They did, after all, find 6 aircraft had small cracks that needed to be fixed. So were they unsafe? Probably not. There are so many strange political moves in here that I get the feeling we haven’t heard the whole story. Check these out.

As you can see, there is a lot of conflicting information out there. What we do know is that Southwest failed to respond to an AD in time, self-reported when it uncovered that fact, and then continued to fly those aircraft until they were fixed with the blessing of the FAA.

When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound that bad. In fact, the worst part of the whole thing is what drew the smallest fine – that Southwest simply failed to perform the work required in the AD in the first place. Will this make me less likely to fly Southwest? Nah. This kind of stuff does happen, though I’m obviously not thrilled to see it. I do want to know more about what Southwest is doing to make sure this doesn’t get overlooked in the future.

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