FAA gives Southwest pass on safety violations

I doubt this story will get a lot of interest here per se, but it’s come out that Southwest was allowed to continue operating planes by the FAA despite some FAA officials being aware that these planes had missed mandatory safety inspections. These planes had not undergone mandatory inspections, and by FAA regulations should have been grounded.

This is a link to a CNN.com article on this story. Some of the planes were operating more than 30 months after inspections deadlines had passed.

Two safety inspectors inside the FAA who have applied for “whistle-blower” status apparently found problems with some planes and then discovered that many Southwest planes were long overdue for inspections.

It looks at least possible from the article that some higher-ups in the FAA May have let Southwest miss these deadlines and continue operating the aircraft, implying possible legal implications for those FAA officials.

Some of the planes had “4-inch” cracks in the fuselage, apparently cracks much smaller are cause for concern.

It is worth mentioning that when the U.S. airline industry was losing billions of dollars, Southwest was the only carrier to continue operating at a profit. In fact I believe (though this may no longer be true) that Southwest has recorded a net profit every quarter of every year since the late 1970s. They’ve also never had a crash–although they did have one accident at Chicago Midland a few years ago.

Edit: It’s worth mentioning that the Wall Street Journal has reported that Southwest voluntarily disclosed this information to the FAA some months ago, and that the FAA was okay with Southwest’s actions at the time. But now it looks like they may be pursuing fines against the airline which could range from $3m-10m.

I KNEW I didn’t fly southworst for SOME reason.

Slight nitpick; MidWAY.

Boy, as someone in the industry, this really pisses me off. We spend quite a bit of money (these aren’t simple oil changes, folks) on required maintenance checks on every plane we operate. To have it come out that WN (Southwest) has been blatantly ignoring passenger safety and federal requirements is just… bloodboiling, to say the least.

I hope Congress rips them a new one. This isn’t something that an airline can just “overlook,” or absent mindedly forget.

I hope their insurance adjustors have another look, as well.

Well, it’s officially. I’m never setting foot in an airplane again.

Well, industry is all perfectly self-regulating, so the free marking will fix it.

I’m sure we’ll never have such an incident again.


Does Dick Cheney own a piece of it? It sounds like they have a cushy deal with the Feds, like Haliburton or Blackwater.

The way you’ve written it up makes it look much worse than what actually happened, frankly. Here’s a story from some pinko-commies in New York that perhaps gives a more balanced view:

First off, Southwest didn’t realize they were violating the new, updated inspection schedule until March 14th (of 2005, I guess) and it only took them about a week to cycle all of their behind-schedule planes through inspection once they realized their error.

Second, they self-reported this lapse to the FAA, it wasn’t discovered by the government.

Third, someone at the FAA person told them they could continue to fly the planes during the period in which they pursued an aggressive inspection and repair schedule.

All told, the, “knowing negligence,” period lasted about 1,500 out of 60,000 post-due-inspection flights, during which they believed that they had FAA okay.

Obviously, the FAA person that told them this acted inappropriately, but if I were a passenger on Southwest, I’d be pretty annoyed with them cancelling half their flights on short notice to slam the planes through new inspections.

Finally, a $10.2 M fine, what would apparently be the largest fine in the history of the FAA, hardly seems like a, “pass on safety violations.”

Like everything in air travel, it’s probably a hell of a lot safer than driving. There is a trade off between cost and safety. As you make the safety process more onerous, the costs go up, and more people drive. Obviously, this seems like a case where the balance was tipped too far to cost cutting, but we should be mindful of the interaction.

You’re assuming that the free market prefers perfectly safe air travel, which isn’t necessarily the case. There may not be anything to “fix” in this case.

Some people may be willing to put up with a little more risk in exchange for cheaper fares.

Well, I’m just going on what both CNN.com said. I also said this at the end of my post:

I read two articles on the story, the one from CNN.com looked a lot damning than the one from the Wall Street Journal. I imagined it was certainly possible the truth was somewhere in between the two papers.

I’m actually starting to wonder if you read my post fully, and the article I linked to in that post.

Are you being intentionally redundant, right in my first post I said,

If you had read the article from CNN.com you’d see that someone within the FAA is being investigated, and that two FAA safety inspectors have applied for whistle-blower status. This suggests they were pointing out major lapses in ethics from their superiors, I would say.

Yeah, they are starting to discuss the fines now that this story has hit the press. There was no move to fine Southwest back when this actually happened. It is blatantly obvious the FAA is doing this because this whole thing became a major news issue today (it was on the front page of several major news sites.)

That’s not really the point, air carriers have a responsibility to conduct safety inspections. Southwest had planes that were months past inspection.

The FAA issued their order in September of 2004, and Southwest “made a mistake” and didn’t realize their noncompliance until March of 2007? 2005 is a bad guess-- “last March” is clearly identified in the story, and the numerous others I’ve read all say March of last year, as well.

They self-reported, and then

kept flying them anyways, after saying that the noncompliance had stopped.

For the fuselage cracks. This article doesn’t even touch on the rudder inspections, which can be even worse, arguably.

All told, the article identifies 59,791 flights flown past the required maintenance schedule, plus the 1,451 “knowingly negligent” flights. There should be no distinction here-- Southwest knew of the mandated safety requirements, and did not comply. You can point fingers at the FAA for giving them the thumbs up (albeit erroneously) all you want, but the fact is, if your plane is in violation of published guidelines, you ground it. Period. No ifs ands or buts. No calls to the FAA to ask for clarification – that’s something you ask for while you’re making those inspections. The FAA and the DOT are incredibly picky about safety, and anyone working in aircraft maintenance knows that you don’t go against any safety mandate without having something to the contrary in hand.

Yes, you would, but it would be Southwest’s responsibility to take care of your travel, given that they failed to adhere to September 2004 published requirements. Passenger convenience is absolutely second to safety, and as you can see from the few replies so far, I think people would be more pissed at Southwest for waiting to perform the maintenance than anything else.

I believe that when the OP was drafted, the FAA had not yet spoken on a fine. When I read about this earlier, no fine was mentioned, either.

We should be, yes, because both sides screwed this one up. But I don’t think it’s right to say that anyone is sensationalizing this situation. It’s big. It’s bad. And Southwest pretty much screwed themselves on it.

Sure, as long as the airline warns that the lower prices are because they neglect the maintenance of the planes.

Meh, regardless of whatever risks this may have posed, SouthWest still has one of the safest, if not the safest, flight records of any major airline – I value that stat over anything else, as far as safety is concerned.

Yeah, they are. Commercial jets need to be repaired if there is visible damage. Visible damage and barely visible damage are rough units of measure that trace back to the degree of damage tolerance testing that was done on the original design.

A 4" crack is not just visible damage, though. It is potentially a sign of fatigue and requires more investigation beyond a simple repair.

These types of inspections are ingrained into the psyche of aviation professionals. This is more than an, “oops. I forgot.” There are about a half dozen checks and balances that were missed, up to and including the pilots unless the logs were being forged.

Exactly. Southwest gets very little sympathy from me; these are big issues that deserve much more than a slap on the wrist.

The people responsible should have to fly Southwest. And wait in the ‘C’ queue.

With carry-on luggage, and small children, hopped up on caffeine and sugar and then dare to ask for help from one of the “attendants”.
How is this failure by SouthWest not a big deal? I have flown SW many, many times–I may never fly them again. This is inexcusable and makes me wonder about the truth behind plane crashes–were those planes’ safety checks just somehow overlooked? A 4 inch crack? How about I just re-use a needle at work–you won’t mind, will you? Look, I’ll wipe it on my scrub top first… Jesus. Same principle at work here-sloppy practice can cause accidents.

Here is some more information from the Wall Street Journal.

This article explains that two FAA supervisors from the Dallas office are “no longer in their positions” because they gave Southwest permission to continue flying planes which were past due for safety inspections.

Yes, it is a good business model for Southwest planes to start falling from the skies. Please get a grip people. Why would they do this? To save money? You are aware how much media attention happens when a airliner crashes…right?
It looks to me that it was an oversight but that doesn’t excuse it. I’ll be flying with Southwest next week and feel as safe as with any other airline.

No one is saying that Southwest corporate decided to heck with it, these Aircraft are safe, let 'em fly.

Some one in their mx department demonstrated a horrible lack of judgement after they discovered they missed these inspections on the fleet and decided to let the fleet fly while they caught up.

Even if they assumed it was okay with the FAA.

There were 59,791 flights flown past the required maintenance schedule, plus 1,451 “knowingly negligent” flights.

1,451 flights Southwest dispatched after they self disclosed. This gives me pause.

They knew they should inspect the fleet. Indeed The worst part of the report is the FAA inspector finding the crack just walking up to the airplane. That is embarrassing when the Fed guy finds a crack that is that obvious. Then to keep flying the plane after he finds the crack? That is just stupid.