A Southwest Saga

Southwest Airlines has come under fire in the past week for allegedly operating a number of planes that were “unsafe.” The initial media reports that came down made it sound like the carrier was flying planes held together with baling wire and chewing gum, though reality was rather different. Since then, the story has taken a number of turns, with the latest news today involving the grounding of 44 planes until further inspections can be completed. Here’s a quick recap:

  • Last week it was announced that Southwest had been flying “unsafe” planes for about a year. As the story unfolded it became clear that the “unsafe” part was that the planes might have missed some inspections, causing them to no longer be in compliance with the Federal Air Regulations (“FARs”) which are the rules governing all flights in the USA. The planes weren’t inherently unsafe, but they did need to go in for their routine checks.
  • Once the FAA and the airline realized that the planes missed the inspections, a new timetable was set up by the two parties to ensure that the inspections were completed. This new timeline allowed for a rather extended inspection window, ensuring that Southwest wouldn’t need to interrupt their flight schedule to pull the planes out of service.

    According to statements made by one of the FAA inspectors seeking whistle-blower status, a manager at the FAA “permitted the operation of these unsafe aircraft in a matter that would provide relief” to the airline, even though customers were on board.

  • The airline operated ~60,000 flights by non-compliant planes during the “extended” inspection period. During that time the carrier was officially out of compliance since the planes were not meeting the FAR-mandated inspections, even though the FAA representative to the carrier told them it was OK.
  • In March ’07 someone higher up the food chain at Southwest realized what was going on and turned themselves in to the FAA, hoping that the self-regulation would result in no fines or penalties.
  • Southwest operated ~1500 flights by ~40 planes during a 10 day period after the FAA notification. This resulted in the FAA issuing a $10MM fine against the carrier. Ironically, this number breaks down to about $7500 per flight, so it is not hard to see how the fine is a better deal for the carrier than cancelling 1500 flights; it cost them less!
  • Today Southwest grounded 44 airplanes – assumed to be the same planes that have been needing inspections for well over a year now – and will keep them on the ground until they can get things straightened out with the FAA; at least that’s what they are claiming now.

What a PR mess for them. The FARs are pretty clear: planes not meeting the minimums defined in the rule book are not allowed to fly. I was on a delayed flight last Thanksgiving because the pilot and maintenance were trying to figure out if a lavatory dump valve cover was actually required based on the planes minimum equipment list. And, of course, the list is governed by the FARs, so if they flew without a piece that was required they could get in big trouble, just like Southwest seems to have done now. I still don’t think that anyone is in a position to say whether the planes were really unsafe, or just that they weren’t meeting FARs; certainly the fact that there were no incidents is fortunate but not enough to establish that the flights were inherently safe. There’s a pretty good analysis of the situation over at the Cranky Flier, though it doesn’t have the updates of the latest grounding.

Does this change my view on flying Southwest? Nope. I still avoid them because I don’t like the Rapid Rewards program and they don’t fly where I’m coming from or going to usually. But the safety thing isn’t a deal breaker for me.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Thanks for the link, Seth. I just put my thoughts on today’s news up on crankyflier.com. Basically, I think it’s still too early to know enough yet, but this is certainly a concerning sign. Why didn’t Southwest find these problems when they self-reported a year ago? It makes you wonder what else is hiding.

  2. I agree that it is early, but certainly the fact that they took so long to fix it is a bad sign. It is one thing to notice a problem and then resolve it while sweeping the evidence under the rug. It is quite another to just sweep evidence of the problems under the rug without actually resolving them. Ultimately that should be what people look at in evaluating them, though we all know what should happen and what does happen are often two different things.

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