Southwest Agrees to Steep Penalties Over Maintenance Problems

Remember when Southwest was fined for flying its planes past the time they were required to go through inspections? It appears that they’ve agreed to settle this thing with some pretty hefty penalties. From the looks of the punishment, you’d think Southwest has some serious systemic problems making the carrier unsafe, but don’t be so quick to judge. There could be some politics involved here.

The deal is this. Southwest gets the fine reduced from the originally proposed $10.2 million to $7.5 million to be paid in three easy installments. (Plus shipping & handling of $19.95) That’s actually not much of a reduction from the original amount, and they have a lot more work to do beyond that. The FAA’s announcement says Southwest has thirteen steps to take, but they only list five examples.

  • Within 30 days, Southwest Airlines will increase the number of on-site technical representatives for heavy maintenance vendors from 27 to 35 people
  • Within 60 days, Southwest Airlines will allow FAA inspectors improved access to information used for tracking maintenance and engineering activities
  • Within 90 days, Southwest Airlines will designate a management head of Quality Assurance who does not have air carrier certification responsibilities
  • Within 180 days, Southwest Airlines will review its Required Inspection Item (RII) procedures to ensure compliance with FAA rules related to maintenance and identify more clearly all RII items on its maintenance work instructions, engineering authorizations, and task cards
  • Within 365 days, Southwest Airlines will rewrite all FAA-approved manuals

So they’re really just putting much more oversight into place here, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Certainly the first reaction many people will have is that Southwest was running an unsafe airline, but I wouldn’t worry. If they were truly unsafe, the FAA would have grounded the airline, or at least parts of it. But they didn’t. They’ve just required changes within the next year. So while Southwest probably can and should improve its safety program (as it’s doing), my guess is that politics is also playing a part here.

You’ll remember last year that the FAA was involved in a few embarrassing situations showing that their oversight maybe wasn’t as strong as it should have been. There was this incident, but there was also the larger and more disruptive MD-80 grounding that followed. So it’s in the FAA’s best interest to repair their image and make it look like they’re on top of things now.

Do I know that’s the case? No. But I imagine the blame should be shared here. I imagine everyone involved has some fault. Will Southwest be safer in the long run? Probably, and that’s a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Southwest did everything right here. But I’m guessing the FAA came down harder on Southwest because of the circumstances than they would have otherwise.

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