Ask the pilot

Did Southwest put its passengers in danger when it recently ran afoul of the FAA?

Published March 21, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

Southwest Airlines is in trouble. As you've probably heard, the nation's sixth largest carrier was forced to temporarily ground dozens of Boeing 737 jetliners that had not been properly inspected. The airline has since issued an open apology to customers, while the Federal Aviation Administration is proposing a record $10.2 million fine. "The FAA is taking action against Southwest Airlines," said Nicholas Sabatini, the agency's associate administrator, "for failing to follow rules that are designed to protect passengers and crew. We expect the airline industry to fully comply with all FAA directives and take corrective action."

In this case, the directives he's talking about pertain to fuselage fatigue inspections that are specific to 737s. Such inspections were mandated in the aftermath of a 1988 Aloha Airlines incident. Cracking along lap joints in the Aloha plane's outer skin caused an 18-foot section of the cabin to peel away during flight, resulting in the death of a flight attendant and one of the most heart-stopping emergency landings of all time. The aircraft had been in service for 19 years, and completed tens of thousands of short-haul inter-island flights. Repeated pressurization cycles, possibly exacerbated by long-term exposure to corrosive salt in Hawaii's sea breezes, allowed the crack to propagate. Since then, airline maintenance procedures have been revised to better monitor structural fatigue. Boeing and the FAA developed a careful schedule of inspections dependent on both total airframe hours and number of takeoffs and landings, or "cycles," as they're called.

Southwest had not been following this schedule. According to the FAA, the infraction involves 46 737s used on nearly 60,000 revenue flights between 2006 and 2007. Even after the lapse was discovered, Southwest allowed several of the jets to continue flying -- six of them with known fatigue cracks.

Southwest's 737s are newer on average than the "classic" model involved in the Aloha mishap, but Southwest too specializes in shorter-haul flights -- lots of them. All airlines strive to keep their planes in the air as much as possible, but Southwest does this while also maximizing cycles. It has one of the highest aircraft utilization rates in the industry, scheduling as little as 30 minutes between legs. Thus, its fleet runs a higher risk than most of developing fatigue problems.

On the face of it, the airline's behavior seems reckless and indefensible -- "the most serious lapse of safety I have observed," in the words of Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But is it really as bad as it sounds?

Well, probably not. Southwest says it believed it was in compliance with the FAA's guidelines, and that the inspection lapses were entirely unintentional. Of the cracks that were discovered, they were deemed minor enough that repairs could be made later. It is highly doubtful that any of the aircraft were in dangerous condition. That's not an excuse; if Southwest broke any rules, inadvertently or otherwise, it needs to be held accountable. But for those of you who may have been passengers on those planes, and fear that your lives were put at risk, the situation is a bit more nuanced than the terrifying headlines -- "Carrier Flew Unairworthy Planes" -- seem to imply. Were policies violated? It appears so. Were lives endangered? In all likelihood, no.

To put this another way: Would I, as an airline pilot, agree to fly an airplane with a known fatigue crack? The answer is maybe. If a technician was able to explain to me why the fatigue crack was not an urgent matter, and show me, in his manuals and guidelines, where it said that I was authorized to fly the plane, then yes, I would. On the other hand, would I agree to fly that same airplane, in the same condition, in knowing violation of a regulation? No. And that, it appears, is where Southwest went over the line.

Passengers might be surprised to learn that jetliners are routinely dispatched with inoperative or malfunctioning components. As any pilot knows, airplanes are not machines of utter perfection. They are not intended to be. Anything so large and complex, incorporating thousands of components, cannot be expected to operate infallibly on every occasion. Should something break, from a coffee maker to a fuel pump, an entire protocol of checks and balances is in place to determine whether and how a flight may safely commence.

An airplane's technical bible consists of two books -- the Minimum Equipment List (MEL) and the Configuration Deviation List (CDL). These vast volumes spell out precisely which parts and components -- even components of components -- can be AWOL for a given flight. They specify when, under what flight conditions and for how long. The asterisks and restrictions can be quite extensive.

In the vernacular, any broken item under MEL or CDL authorization is spoken of as "deferred." One of the first things a crew does after signing in for a trip is scan the paperwork for deferrals, making note of any pertinent restrictions. A malfunctioning anti-skid system, for example, can affect how much runway is needed for takeoff and landing. An inoperative APU (auxiliary power unit) can mean a lower than normal cruise altitude, or it might prohibit flights over the ocean. On a recent flight to Europe our SATCOM (satellite communications) unit was on the fritz, meaning that oceanic position reports had to be made the old-fashioned way, via high-frequency radio, a tedious and time-consuming procedure. Because aircraft are designed with so much redundancy, however, most deferrals impose little or no penalty.

Honestly, the MEL and CDL are not contrived to allow airlines an easy hand at operating malfunctioning planes. Many things, as you'd hope, are not deferrable at all, and any malfunctioning item must be repaired in a set number of days or flight hours. All deferrals have to be documented and coordinated between the crew and maintenance personnel, a process that can include a series of logbook notations, signatures and revised flight plans. During a delayed departure, when a crew member speaks of having to "finish up some last-minute paperwork," this is often the culprit.

Above and beyond the deferral process, no respectable airline will pressure a crew to operate any flight. The final call, if you will, is the captain's, regardless of what the MEL or CDL might allow. Believe it or not, pilots have as much to lose as any member of the traveling public, and don't wish to put their lives (or livelihoods) in jeopardy any more than you do.

Meanwhile, airlines are easy targets, and you'll hear all sorts of incendiary language used to describe the Southwest scandal. The carrier, in cahoots with the feds, was "gambling with passengers' lives," and so on. Regrettably, it's incidents like this that perpetuate the myth of the evil airline that doesn't care if its planes crash or if its passengers are killed.

In fact a serious accident is about the worst thing that can happen to an airline, with liability claims potentially running into the billions of dollars. The bombing of Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988 is widely cited as the beginning of the end for the fabled Pan Am. In 1996, the crash of a ValuJet DC-9 into the Florida Everglades was traced to the illegal transport of oxygen canisters. ValuJet was so vilified that it had to change its name, reinventing itself, at great risk and cost, as AirTran.

The Southwest scandal also offers fodder to those who decry the sometimes cozy relationship between the FAA and the airlines it oversees. The FAA has been roundly criticized for not catching Southwest's violations sooner. Some have accused the agency of tacitly allowing the carrier to operate in violation of its own mandates -- in other words, it knew but allowed it to happen.

But in practice, for the system to function properly that relationship needs to be a close one. In many ways, air safety depends on a level of mutual trust between airlines and their regulators, and nothing would be more detrimental than an environment of confrontation and intimidation. Yes, there are occasional conflicts of interest and regulatory foot-dragging (take the rules pertaining to crew rest and duty-time limitations, for instance), and things don't always move as quickly as they ought to. But overall the system works, as statistics clearly reveal. Traveling by plane not only is remarkably safe but continues to become safer, even as the volume of flights grows. Flying in 2008 is an estimated six times safer than it was in the 1980s, with double the number of planes carrying double the number of people. And as I'm prone to reminding my readers, there has not been a large-scale accident involving a major U.S. air carrier since 2001. If, by those numbers, the airline business is a hive of malpractice and negligence, then all industries should be so corrupt.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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