Monday, March 10, 2008

Southwest's Woes

Southwest Airlines has been under fire from the Federal Aviation Administration and government leaders concerning aircraft safety. Following a $10.2 million fine which Southwest's Chief Executive said "felt unfair," Southwest's blog was quick to assure readers "that no one is more passionate about the safety of . . . Customers and Employees than we are" and that "the situation being reported in the media was never and is not now a safety of flight issue." And what is the "situation"? According to James Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, forty-seven Southwest jets were in operation without proper fuselage inspections and seventy had not received rudder-control inspections. Southwest's response has been to consistently highlight its internal safety inspections and to note that the FAA approved Southwest's measures in inspecting its potentially compromised aircraft.

Obesrstar's ire is not limited to Southwest, however. In an official press release, he turned his attention to the FAA itself. Oberstar blasted the FAA for its "lax inspection procedures for commercial airlines." He went on to state that his Committee's investigation of the FAA had "uncovered a pattern of regulatory abuse and that "FAA inspectors have given up reporting failures by the carriers because there is such a cozy relationship between FAA management and airline management."

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FAA penalty "threatens to be the biggest bruise ever to an industry brand synonymous with low costs, low fares and friendly, reliable service." The FAA is already organizing a special investigation team to audit the carrier's internal safety systems and maintenance oversight. The FAA officials previously responsible for overseeing the inspection of Southwest have been removed from their positions. Another potential source of damage to the reputation of both the agency and the airline is a "whistleblowers report" which alleges that written memos were circulating as early as 2003 warning that Southwest was not keeping up with its maintenance program. The report appears to sustain Oberstar's contention of "coziness" between the two bodies.

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