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Our view: Southwest not so hot with real safety record exposed

Days before Christmas 2005, Southwest Airlines Flight 1248 crashed through a fence and onto a busy street after sliding off a snow-covered runway at Chicago's Midway Airport. Throughout that horrible day, the airline regularly updated its Web sit...

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Days before Christmas 2005, Southwest Airlines Flight 1248 crashed through a fence and onto a busy street after sliding off a snow-covered runway at Chicago's Midway Airport. Throughout that horrible day, the airline regularly updated its Web site with news -- and it didn't skirt the most tragic detail, the death of a 6-year-old boy in a vehicle struck by the plane.

The company's response was "a real example of putting human concerns before business," we opined in this space under the headline, "Southwest sets standard for openness in crash response."

Last week, however, a far-darker, less-caring Southwest Airlines emerged during congressional hearings in Washington on airline safety.

According to testimony, the airline missed inspection deadlines as recently as March 20. It failed to promptly inspect rudder standby hydraulic systems on 70 aircraft.

And it kept flying 46 planes found to be delinquent of mandatory inspections -- even after another of its Boeing 737s was found to have cracks in its fuselage. Such cracks were blamed in 1988 when an Aloha Airlines 737 lost a major portion of its hull at 24,000 feet. The Southwest 737s kept flying while maintenance crews completed the overdue inspections -- another five were found to have cracks.

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Herb Kelleher, Southwest's executive chairman, did apologize last week "for not fulfilling our duty" by taking the 737s out of service. But he followed that by downplaying the gaffe. "The planes were perfectly safe," he claimed, adding that at issue was a "tiny part" of the airplanes.

The fuselage is a tiny part of an airplane? Even if Kelleher was correct, a major, potentially catastrophic problem "always starts with a tiny part," as Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, retorted.

"It is misfeasance, malfeasance, bordering on corruption," Oberstar said. "If this were a grand-jury proceeding, I think it would result in an indictment."

And not just against Southwest. Alarming safety-inspection oversights emerged against other carriers and against the Federal Aviation Administration. In one instance, after a mechanic was sucked into a Continental Airlines engine and killed, the FAA responded with a voluntary disclosure program rather than with a formal investigation. Another time, when an inspector questioned whether a FedEx pilot had made an unauthorized flight in possible violation of FAA rules, he was instructed to keep quiet.

But much of the marathon, 9½-hour hearing Thursday focused on Southwest and on the FAA's handling of safety inspections at Southwest. And that had to be of particular concern in Duluth. Two years ago, inspired by Southwest's response to the Chicago incident, we began a campaign to bring Southwest to Duluth. The idea was to have Minnesota's congressional delegation take the lead in repealing an act of Congress that had restricted Southwest's operations out of its home base in Dallas. In exchange, the low-cost airline could consider flying to Minnesota, in particular Duluth.

Southwest got its act of Congress, thanks in part to the campaign, but didn't add service to Minnesota.

Considering what we now know about the airline's real attitudes about safety, it's probably just as well.

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