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Southwest Airlines: The Plot Thickens

Cindy Loose

The plot thickens at Southwest Airlines, which as we reported earlier is facing record FAA fines for failing to do mandatory safety checks on some of its older planes.

At first Chief Executive Gary Kelly pooh-poohed the reports, saying the maintenance checks were redundant, and there was really no problem. But yesterday he said in a statement that "I am concerned about some of our findings." The company then placed three workers on leave after reviewing maintenance records, and hired a consultant to review maintenance programs.

More tellingly, Southwest yanked about 40 planes out of its fleet because they needed inspections of the aircraft skin above and below the windows along the fuselage. Each inspection takes about 90 minutes, and the airline is hoping to have the work completed in time to operate a full schedule tomorrow (Thursday). One company exec told the Dallas Morning News that they are "taking a conservative approach, even if that looks bad."

A short review: The FAA charges that Southwest made 1,451 flights after the FAA disclosed the maintenance problems. But the FAA's role is equally cloudy, and the federal agency has removed two workers from their positions. FAA whistleblowers contend that an FAA and a Southwest manager knew about the problems and didn't do anything. The FAA is not commenting. Congress James Oberstar said earlier this week that Southwest may have flown 70 planes for at least a year without inspecting rudder controls.

After doing the maintenance checks, Southwest found fuselage cracks in some planes. Scary. However, the airline's Web site today is saying that it "contacted Boeing for verification of their technical opinion.... In Boeing's opinion, the safety of the Southwest fleet was not compromised."

Good to know.

CoGo happens to have a flight soon on Southwest. Although the company has shaken consumer confidence, and rightfully so, CoGo isn't worried about an upcoming flight. Southwest seems to be taking this seriously, the FAA is on the hot seat, and Southwest is probably going to be one of the safest fleets flying, as least while the spotlight is still on them. You agree?

By Cindy Loose |  March 12, 2008; 2:45 PM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose , Insta-CoGo
Previous: London (and NYC) Calling: Spring Theater Flings | Next: Insta-CoGo: Cruisin' for a Rebate

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This is what happens when 59 million morons elect a Chimp to the White House.

Chimpy has "hollowed out" the Federal government with budget cuts, layoffs, incompetent cronies and an unprecedented level of privatization.

Now there are not enough Federal inspectors to keep us safe. Not enough FAA or USDA inspectors. Not enough OSHA or MSHA inspectors.

Do you feel safer since Chimpy took office?

I don't.

Posted by: Tom3 | March 12, 2008 3:44 PM

Terrific reporting save one slight detail
What reaction/opinion does the pilots and stewards have that flew these planes have. Its a simple question that I have not seen any reporting on.

Art Cantu

Posted by: Arthur Cantu | March 12, 2008 3:50 PM

What does "CoGo" stand for?

Posted by: question | March 12, 2008 4:13 PM

Southwest still has a problem even if they start maintaining their planes to FAA standards.

Their fleet is mostly Boeing 737s, which have a dangerous rudder design. It only has 1 control motor instead of 2 and it can get jammed and cause a crash.

There were several 737 crashes due to this in the 1990s. They made some fixes, but as far as I know the 737 still only has one rudder motor instead of the two it should have, like every other plane in the air has.

Posted by: Tom3 | March 12, 2008 4:47 PM

To question: I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but it means Coming-Going. I've been reading this blog for ages and realized a few weeks ago when I kept reading CoGo that I didn't know what it meant either. Did some research and that's what I turned up.

Posted by: ERS | March 12, 2008 5:31 PM

Cindy - that's easy. Just have an "About this blog" link somewhere.

But yeah, I had to research it, too.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | March 12, 2008 5:45 PM

The person questioning the meaning of CoGo has pointed out something important we should address: Regular print edition readers know CoGo refers to the Coming and Going column, which has consumer news, solves consumer problems etc., and has taken on enough of a personality that instead of saying "I," we routinely say CoGo this and CoGo says and CoGo complains. When we started the blog it didn't occur to us that bloggers wouldn't know CoGo. So, I'm CoGo, and I'll have to talk to my boss about what we do about this little ego problem.

Posted by: cindy loose | March 12, 2008 5:50 PM

I'm no aeronautical engineer, but I know skin failure around a window cause the crash of two British Comet I airliners that permanently grounded this first jet airliner back in the early '50's. More to the point, the FAA's behavior just highlights the view of Bush administration that Federal regulation is intrinsically illegitimate and that the bureaucrats should just stand aside and let business do its thing -- regardless of the effect on the public.

Posted by: Thomas Ochiltree | March 12, 2008 6:22 PM

The CEO of Southwest should step down! Instead Southwest will fire some guy who did not have the power to get the job done and the FAA will kiss up to the airline Execs.

Posted by: Kevin Long | March 12, 2008 9:09 PM

It's about the rudder controls. All clear? Does the 737 need to be renovated or not?

Thank goodness for whistle blowers. And affix the blame on the ones with the motor pool aka daily maintenance not the Prez.

Posted by: J Atkins | March 19, 2008 3:28 PM

Let me make a few corrections. Tom, the 737 has 2 PCUs (power control units) that control the rudder system. The main is powered by the A and B system and the 2nd by the Standby Hydraulic system. To make a long story short and avoid a systems lesson, the ability to cause large yaw loads is alleviated when the aircraft is above 135 knots by the Rudder Pressure Reducer and the Rudder Pressure Limiter, both of which reduce the available hydraulic power, thus yaw/rudder authority. In addition, the Rudder System Enhancement Program (RSEP) which will replace the main PCU, and the Force Fight Monitor (FFM) alleviate any chance for control/override problem. The AD (Airworthiness Directive)requires all 737s be compiant with this program by Nov 2008. The rudder design in the 737 is not dangerous. It is probably one of the safest airliners ever developed.
J Atkins, It is not about rudder controls. It is about a small inspection required on older 737s that has to do with skin fatigue. It is a routine inspection that was done visually instead of using the eddy current method (an electromagnetic for of NDI-non-destructive inspection). The visual inspection was intially thought as the only one required. SWA identified the error and self-disclosed to the FAA. It also conferred with Boeing on any safety issues. Total aircraft effected were 38--out of approx 530 total aircraft. Here is an excerpt from the Boeing website on the issue
"Boeing Statement on Southwest Airlines 737 Inspection Activity
SEATTLE, March 06, 2008 -- Southwest Airlines contacted Boeing for verification of its technical opinion that the continued operation of SWA's Classic 737s, for up to 10 days until the airplanes could be reinspected, did not pose a safety of flight issue. Based on a thorough review of many factors, including fleet history and test data, as well as other inspections and maintenance previously incorporated, Boeing concluded the 10-day compliance plan was technically valid. In Boeing's opinion, the safety of the Southwest fleet was not compromised." After conferring with Boeing, SWA was given time by the FAA to complete the inspections. Their is some confusion as to the "he said-she said" going on now but that info will come to light.
To get to the point, SWA fosters an unbelievble culture of safety. It is their #1 priorty. They fly the largest fleet of 737 aircraft in the world and have probably the best safety record of any major airline in the industry--and they've been fly 737s for over 37 years. And currently fly over 3200 flights a day.
As you've probably guessed I work for SWA. As a matter of fact, I'm a 737 pilot. Art, No, I've never felt I have flown an unsafe airplane. As a matter of fact, there isn't a pilot I know that would take an airplane they felt unsafe into the sky. I know some mistakes have been made in the maintenace arena, as well as the FAA I'm guessing, and rest assured they were mistakes. Their is a difference between a crime and a mistake. You can bet a: SWA never put any customers into harms way never will and b: they will do everything in their power to correct any errors on procedures. Making the safest airline even safer.
I have ranted to much and can go on. I do believe that before posting stuff that is basically a shot from the hip that some research and an informed and intellegent response is the better choice.

Posted by: Bill | March 20, 2008 4:45 PM

I am going to Florida [non-stop] from columbus , ohio to Tampa Florida on April 25th. In view of the news about the faulty cracks in the fusalage and the rudder having only one motor instead of 2,I am wondering if the 737's are safe . I am afraid of flying , but now am terrified. I want to know if these planes have been thoroughly inspected and safe. How can I find out? I am booked on southwest airlines on one of these 737's. should I have a valid reason to question the safety of these planes?

Posted by: | March 26, 2008 8:39 PM

Leewilbur, they are very safe.

Posted by: Bill | March 28, 2008 12:27 PM

Bill, thank you for the response..I am an avid customer to Southwest and I beleive they are they best airline in the industry..Southwest also has one of the best safety records if not the best record in the industry..They are very safe..They also have the youngest fleet in the industry..

Posted by: Eric | April 1, 2008 11:25 PM

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