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: / 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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10 comments on “Southwest’s Parts Problem Isn’t a Direct Safety Issue

  1. When those flights were grounded after the initial discovery, I didn’t count any winners — just the losers — the passengers whose trips got disrupted and who were subsequently delayed, canceled, et al.

  2. I thought an extension until late December seem a long time, but maybe they will get it done sooner.

    But you know the first thing that happens to one of these planes the lawyers and big mouths who want media attentioin will be in court and on TV in a second even if the problem is nothing to do with these parts.

    40+ planes grounded would hurt the traveling public since no airline just happens to have 40 extra ready to go planes sitting around to use while the repairs are made.

    Golly gee I’ve been on an airplane, maybe I can preach doom and gloom and get on CNN as an ‘expert’ in the field and get my 15 minutes of shame…..I mean fame.

  3. In this case as a frequent flyer who must rely on and trust FAA enforcement of Safety Rules and policing of ALL airlines which fly in the USA I am very pleased and relieved that the FAA is doing their job. I disagree with Cranky in that he claims it is not a safety issue. It may not be, but it was a big step in the wrong direction. Saying “I’m sorry” after an accident doesn’t cut it. Timely and strict enforcement of FAA Safety Rules and Regulations is the ONLY defense travelers have to minimize flight safety risks. Making light of breaking safety rules is NOT very smart in ANY industry. Bottom line: BETTER SAFE THEN SORRY! Shame on Cranky.

  4. agree with Cranky that this may not be a safety issue to the level of warranting grounding aircraft. and the scare tactics of the “passenger rights activists” only garner attention to their other issue: they know nothing about aircraft maintenance but somehow get their voices on cable TV as an “expert.” go figure. BUT….why does Southwest get until Christmas to fix some 40 airplanes when they fixed the first 40-ish in the last week or so? It wasn’t too long ago that AA had a maintenance/parts issue and the FAA cut them no slack: they ended up grounding MD80’s all over the place with resulting passenger and flight disruptions, heavy handed press and bad p.r., etc. You know that issue wasn’t a “groundable offense” either but heaven forbid that the FAA is seen as buddying up with the airlines. WN is a good airline but I guess they have an outstanding government relations department.

  5. Now we know how WN will pay for all this, they announced starting tomorrow you can pay $10.00 each way to board flights before the general boarding, but after premium passengers board.

    So now you can pay extra money to get the seat you want (maybe) and get overhead space. That’s like paying extra to get to the head of the line.

    Now if they can just work out how to install those small lockers where you put the money in and remove the key in place of the overhead bins, they can make even more money. Maybe they are waiting for Ryanair to work that one out.

  6. @ Zack Rules, Albany, NY:
    “Southwest suspended the maintenance company that did the repair work, D-Velco, a unit of aviation parts maker Northstar Aerospace. D-Velco hired a subcontractor to make the exhaust-gate assemblies, but the subcontractor’s parts weren’t approved by the FAA.” DAVID KOENIG AP Airlines Writer, Chicago Tribune
    Ooops, I guess I should waited. This should be in your post though as it hasn’t been in much of the “cable news”.

  7. Gary – I think it’s just a matter of timing. When the MD80 thing broke, the FAA was already under scrutiny for screwing up with the last Southwest incident. So they flexed muscles in a very stupid way and caused crazy amounts of inconvenience without improving safety. How they’re handling this is how they should have handled that.

    Zack – I hadn’t seen that information, thanks for forwarding. It was a question I asked Southwest but they still haven’t gotten back to me.

  8. I think this just points at a need for a reorganization of the FAA.

    1. Their safety responsibilities should be spun off and merged with the NTSB. 2. Their air traffic management responsibilities should be spun off into a non-profit with a board of directors composed of representatives of the government and industry. (This is how Canada’s air traffic system is organized.)

    This then would leave the FAA solely responsible for promoting air traffic, and would also create a fair balance of checks and balances in ensuring air safety. Newt Ginrich once said that one of the smartest inventions of our founders is that there was built in conflict, so there was a necessity for negotiation and checks and balance.

  9. @ Dan:
    the real losers would be the families of people who died because of sloppy work on southwest airplanes not those inconvienienced by their grounding!

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