Southwest’s Parts Problem Isn’t a Direct Safety Issue

I’m sure you’ve all heard about Southwest’s parts problem, right? If you heard about it from cable news, you probably heard some hysterical pundit flipping out about how big of a deal this is. Well it’s not. At least, it’s not a safety issue directly and the FAA has given Southwest more time to fix it instead of grounding the planes. My only concern is whether this points to a need for greater oversight.

What happened? An FAA inspector was poking around some airplanes at Southwest when he discovered that there was an unapproved part on the plane. Sounds dangerous, no? Well, it’s actually not. Unapproved does not necessarily mean unsafe. My understanding of the situation is that one of Southwest’s contractors subcontracted this work to another firm without proper approval. So the part was considered unapproved, and that’s a problem.

Southwest's Unapproved PartThe part in question was on 82 737-300 and 737-500 aircraft and 43 have already been replaced. What is this part? It’s a hinge in the mechanism that deflects hot engine exhaust away from the flaps when they’re extended for takeoff and landing. You’ll find a helpful visual explanation at left.

According to a Southwest spokesperson, this is how things went down on Saturday, August 22 when they first found out what was going on.

Once the information was brought to our attention [by the FAA], Southwest decided to hold our aircraft on the ground until receiving further clarification from FAA and Boeing. On Saturday afternoon, we received written approval from both parties that there was no safety concern and our [aircraft] were safe to operate with the parts. Boeing said the parts were repaired to their exact specifications.

So if you’ve heard some of the scare tactics coming from Kate Hanni and friends, you can calm down now. (When did she become a safety expert, anyway?)

According to Kate, “If the FAA allows Southwest this exemption, it will be rewarding the airline for using unauthorized parts in the first place, and will lead to a Niagara of non-conforming parts exemption requests from Southwest’s competitors that will ultimately imperil passenger safety.”

Is this a joke? Sadly, no, but it will get press coverage. Here’s the deal. Southwest still has to replace every single unauthorized part no matter how safe it is, and that ain’t cheap. Southwest simply asked for an extension on doing it so it didn’t have to impact its schedule anymore than it already has. So this is hardly a “reward” for the airline. It’s costing them a lot, and that’s without even considering the avalanche of bad press. There isn’t going to be a rush on installing suspect parts by other airlines here.

Personally, my only area of concern isn’t related to this specific incident but rather to what it could signify. That’s why I say it isn’t a direct safety issue, but I do wonder if there are indirect issues that this highlights. Southwest has long outsourced a fair bit most of its heavy maintenance operation, and it has always prided itself on good oversight.

But how did this one slip by the airline? Who has the responsibility to make sure things like this don’t happen? Where was the breakdown? I asked Southwest if this was going to result in any changes in their oversight, but I’ve yet to receive a response.

This is now two very public run-ins with the FAA in recent memory, and that’s going to hurt the airline’s reputation in the public eye. Do I have any qualms about stepping on a Southwest airplane? No. But others may not feel the same way, especially if they’re only watching the pundits claiming the sky is falling.

[You can listen to me joining Addison Schonland on a podcast before the FAA’s decision was announced.]

[Original photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterkaminski/ / CC BY 2.0]

[Updated 9/2 @ 449p to clarify that mostly heavy maintenance is outsourced and not the lighter stuff.]

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