Southwest Agrees to Steep Penalties Over Maintenance Problems

Government Regulation, Safety/Security, Southwest

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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7 comments on “Southwest Agrees to Steep Penalties Over Maintenance Problems

  1. I’m sure there’s some kind of overkill factor built into the inspection schedules. If you really need to inspect a plane every 3 years to keep it safe, the rules probably say to do it every 2 years or something like that. I’m betting Southwest was just intruding into the overkill rather than actually approaching the interval where safety would be in question.

  2. How can they get any safer? 1 fatalilty in their entire history and you write a ridiculous sentence like “Will Southwest be safer in the long run? Probably…” Speaking of overkill.

  3. You made a good point of saying this is just an increase in oversight. A classic example of adding inspection instead of mistake-proofing the processes. They are just hoping more inspection will catch a future problem. Smoke and mirrors….

  4. Adding checkpoints is not smoke and mirrors. It’s governance that is needed in an industry that has proven that it will cut corners regardless of consequences.

  5. Jim Carmignani – Last time I checked, fatality count was not exactly the only way to measure safety. There are always problems and any airline that thinks there’s no way to improve safety is making a huge mistake. There is always a way to improve safety.

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