Be Careful Before Deciding Southwest Was Unsafe

Safety/Security, Southwest

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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16 comments on “Be Careful Before Deciding Southwest Was Unsafe

  1. Well no, it is unlikely the aircraft were actually “unsafe” in other than in the legal sense; but, in my opinion, as an ex.QA/Safety Manager and internal auditor (and the boss of a national Accident/Incident investigation bureau) I am mind-boggled at the Culture that must have existed in at least sections of the carrier. A classic case of “Commercial Expediency” overiding Law. The affected aircraft should have been withdrawn from service until they were compliant. There is no way I would fly, or permit my family to fly with this carrier unless there has been a substantial upgrading of their performance and Culture. I suspect that had these breaches been detected in, say, Australia or New Zealand, their operating certificate would have been suspended.The more I think about it, the more boggles I become. The Culture flows down from the Top.

  2. Good read on this one CF. I think this is another case of the mainstream media using fear to hype a story (Hey, if fear works in politics, let’s use it to sell news!) I’ve flown on all the U.S. carriers, and as an aerospace engineer and a pilot, I can say that Southwest Airlines has impressed me the most with their operations. They haven’t had a fatal crash in over 30 years of flying. Considering that they carry more passengers than any other carrier in the world, they must be doing something right with their maintenance and crew training operations. I think this is more of a paperwork and FAA oversight issue than a real safety concern with those 737s. If folks are really concerned about aviation safety, I suggest they check out the NTSB’s list of Most Wanted aviation safety improvements, found on their web site at
    And no, I don’t own Southwest stock, nor have I ever worked for them, or have any family or friends who work for them. I just have an aversion to the general media’s skill at screwing up the facts on most aviation stories.

  3. Thanks as always Brett for the reasoned response. Given the way it was presented by CNN yesterday, I thought it was interesting that it was not on the front page of the LA Times (or front of even the Business section) today and given the speed with which the fine was announced, the whole story has a sense of being “stacked” that is unfortunate.

  4. Yes, good point about their great/low accident record. But,just as an ex-pilot, I am puzzled as to how a specific aircraft can be released to service with non-compliant ADs? If it really a non-urgent AD, then surely one contacts the FAA and makes application for a time extension stating your case.Even given it was an oversight of paperwork, it still indicates a systemic problem…doesn’t it?

  5. dakota67 – I’m not sure if it was considered urgent or non-urgent, but you can read the entire text of the AD. I don’t see any specific timeline in there, but I find that to be a pretty confusing document anyway.

    I would certainly like to hear what exactly happened that meant they missed these inspections. While it could by a systemic problem, it could also just as easily have been some sort of miscommunication or simply a one-time mistake. Hopefully these details will be released.

  6. This entire Southwest fiasco seems to be lacking some context.

    Why would one of the top-rated airlines completely ignore the feds inspection rules when they have not in the past? Obviously the CEO though they were OK with FAA as much as a year ago.

    Something changed.

    The FAA inspectors union released a statement that has quite a few of those same ugly labor relations issues bubbling up that I see as a cause of conflict with the controllers.

    Maybe FAA decided to make someone a scapegoat to avoid some other internal problem.

    Just a thought.

    Rob Mark

  7. Do excuse me chaps but being from down-under I do not know what the content and format of the aircraft’s Tech Log is in the USA. I mean, it may not have been possible for the pilots to open it up and see that there were outstanding ADs. As a last line of defence. The old Jim Reason’s slice of cheese.Anyway, rest of Industry may learn something.
    And I wonder what the carrier’s underwriters think of all this?

  8. Here’s an interesting release that just came out from a former NTSB investigator. You never know if a guy like this has an axe to grind or if someone is paying him, but it seems to shed a little more light on the situation.

    Oh, and sorry I can’t answer any of your latest questions dakota67. Wish I knew!

  9. The planes didn’t suddenly become dangerous one day because an inspection deadline had passed. But the fact that they continued to fly them after acknowledging that they were well out of compliance is bad. That being said, the $10MM fine is probably much less than it would’ve cost them to cancel the 1400 flights. At $7200/flight, it is a no-brainer to anyone running the company that you keep flying and pay the fine, and use your PR machine to deal with the fallout on that front. Sad but true.

    The issues with the fuselage cracks seem more important to me than the rudder inspections, but that’s because I have no idea what I’m talking about, not because I’m smart :)

  10. After reading the Faa letter I am amazed that SWA was negligant enough to let this happen. This is an inspection that has to be done to all 737’s.
    So it looks like they were doing to most jets but due to record keeping these slipped through. This would be norm for a bankrupt airline but last time i checked SWA had plenty of money. I know that CF is trying to pass this off as no big deal but the AD was meant for jets that do
    short flights and alot of cycles IE(Aloha and SWA).

  11. Trinketization

    I’ve always been concerned with air safety – irrational given the stats – but its got so bad I can’t sit near a window over the wing for fear of seeing those painted signs that say ‘ do not walk beyond this line’. Its not the idea of people walking on the wing I fear (I know they don’t do it while airborne) but its the footprints on the wrong side of the line that bother me. From such skericks of info paranoia grows.

    See here: Trinketization

  12. CF, I’m surprised that you think this is minor. Have you read BusinessWeek’s article of an FAA whistle-blower Mark Lund? Sounds like the same/similar situation with Southwest. Basically, the FAA Supervisor/Manager are in bed with the airlines. Southwest is not allowing the following to be posted on their blog:
    1. FAA Inspector (whistleblower-WB) finds out about the continued lack of inspections. Files report to his FAA Supervisors.
    2. Southwest conveniently hands an “anonymous” complaint about WB to FAA Supervisor. WB re-assigned. FAA gives ok for SWA to fly.
    3. FAA closes investigation in April 2007.
    4. WB seeks WB status with Congress. Congress investigates. FAA re-opens SWA case, issues fine a couple before Congress was to conclude their investigation.

    If you really read all the Dallas papers, you would have known this.

  13. Chuck N – I was more focused on the safety implications of this particular incident, and from what I can tell, there weren’t very many.

    But I think you’re pointing out the real story here. It’s the FAA that has serious problems that keeps it too close to the airlines and not as effective as a regulatory body as it should be. That’s the scariest part of this whole thing – not this particular incident.

  14. Well it seems that the planes are still not all in the clear; a whole bunch were just grounded. I agree that leaping to the conclusion that they are inherently unsafe because they are late on an inspection is a grand move, but at the same time, there is a reason the inspections are mandated and it looks like some collusion within the FAA/WN relationship to boot.

    Not inherently unsafe, but still a very bad idea.

  15. This is an interesting post. You should submit it at Yearblook is a competition to find each day’s best blog posts. At the end of the year, the 365 best posts (1 from each day) will be published in a book (a real, printed book, you will find it on Amazon).

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