2:51 PM

One Seriously Ugly Mess

Today, CNN broke a story that could end up being one of the major aviation stories of 2008. You know it isn't going to be good when you see this kind of headline:

Records: Southwest Airlines flew 'unsafe' planes

Without putting any more thought into the matter, Average Joe and Jane could easily assume the wings are about to fall off all those SWA 737s we see at every major regional hub. That presumption isn't terribly off the mark, according to CNN's web site:

"Discount air carrier Southwest Airlines flew thousands of passengers on aircraft that federal inspectors said were "unsafe" as recently as last March, according to detailed congressional documents obtained by CNN. Documents submitted by FAA inspectors to congressional investigators allege the airline flew at least 117 of its planes in violation of mandatory safety checks. In some cases, the documents say, the planes flew for 30 months after government inspection deadlines had passed and should have been grounded until the inspections could be completed. The planes were "not airworthy," according to congressional air safety investigators."
O.K., we get it that SWA flew the planes "in violation of mandatory safety checks", but does anyone else but me wonder how the FAA's inspectors missed this...FOR 30 MONTHS! That, my friends, is George Bush's FAA at work...or not. Two words immediately jump up shouting:

Annual. Inspection.

What is wrong with a system that makes humble little GA planes go through all the inspections needed to chase $100 hamburgers, but misses the really big stuff on commercial airlners? Ponder that while you read what CNN also reported about who knew what and when they knew it:
"The documents were prepared by two FAA safety inspectors who have requested whistle-blower status from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The two inspectors have been subpoenaed to testify before the committee. The whistle-blowers say FAA managers knew about the lapse in safety at Southwest, but decided to allow the airline to conduct the safety checks on a slower schedule because taking aircraft out of service would have disrupted Southwest Airlines' flight schedule."
CNN has posted some really great comments from some of their readers, which I believe really tells it like it is:
From "Toby": "As a 25-year veteran in aircraft maintenance I can tell you that far more than just the SWA planes that are out of compliance. Does this mean they are actually unsafe to fly? No, it does not. I can tell you that many other airlines are now scrambling to get their paperwork in order. It is too bad that SWA will take an unjust hit for this. They are one of the few that actually make money and spend heavily on maintenance equipment and I would not hesitate to put my own family on their planes. Many carriers outsource their maintenance to other airlines and even to other countries. Although I work for a major carrier, I do not work and have never worked for SWA."

And this from "Diane": "Hey, what about the FAA inspectors?? Don't they need to shoulder some of this? They allowed SWA to fly unsafe planes."

And this from "GLC": "I find it interesting that after all these years of Southwest doing business and not having any crashes, that this article pops up? Or is it a plot by other airlines that aren't as successful to get a piece of the pie by scaring people off Southwest. I would venture to say that this is not the only airline company that has these "statistics" but this is the only one they [CNN] chose to write about."
As is the case in today's Washington – and particularly inside the FAA – we will never, ever know what is really the truth here. The whole affair begs this question: Is this an isolated SWA situation, or are other airlines slipping way past FAA deadlines and missing crucial safety inspections? Again, we will never know, but I can easily see a rough patch ahead for the airlines until we can somehow convince the paying passengers that the planes they are boarding are safe. And this we will never really know for certain, because in today's ethically-void Corporate world, stretching the truth so you can bend the rules is completely accepted...as long as it's done as a means to generate a phat profit.

I guess the only real way I'm going to feel safe flying is on Dano Airlines, because at DanoAir, our Cherokee 235's logs are current, our plane has been meticulously inspected for the last 44 years, and our maintenance is only outsourced as far as Creswell, Oregon.

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