Saturday, March 8, 2008

Southwest Sacrifices Airline Safety for Profits

by Tom Hinton

Over the years, I’ve admired Southwest Airlines for doing things right. It seemed that when other airlines were lowering their standards and compromising their commitment to service and quality, Southwest Airlines struck to its knitting and honored its words and promises to customers. In the process, Southwest created a successful and profitable airline. By offering low fares, frequent flights, a strong safety record, and motivated employees -- who had fun on the job and cared for their customers -- Southwest Airlines became one of America’s most admired companies and desirable places to work.

Now, Southwest is under fire by Congress, consumer groups, and the FAA for allowing more than 100 un-inspected planes to fly despite the fact that some planes had cracks in their fuselages. Four jets were found to have four-inch cracks requiring immediate repair. Six jets had signs of cracks starting to show.

Southwest admits that it allowed its planes to fly with cracks, but denies that it ever placed its crew or passengers in jeopardy. In a statement addressed to its customers, Southwest Airlines said, "We assure our customers that this was never a safety of flight issue." Aviation experts told NBC News that the early damage would not be catastrophic, but cracks could lead to serious problems.

Inspections of airplane fuselages became mandatory in 1988 after an Aloha Airlines Boeing-737 jet cracked open at 24,000 feet while enroute from Honolulu to Hilo killing a flight attendant and injuring seven of the 89 people aboard. Ironically, a passenger noticed a sever fuselage crack as she stepped aboard the Aloha Airlines jet in Honolulu, but never mentioned it to the flight crew.

To its credit, Southwest discovered the inspection oversight and notified the FAA. But, for reasons not explained, Southwest continued to fly the un-inspected planes on more than 1,400 flights. Federal law requires that planes be grounded until they are in compliance. Southwest cooperated with the FAA throughout the inspection process and told the media is was surprised when the FAA proposed a $10.2 million fine for violating federal regulations.

Is this just a series of misunderstandings and communication breakdowns, or is it -- as the head of a congressional committee suggests -- collusion between the FAA and the airlines it’s supposed to regulate?

Rep. James Oberstar, who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, believes the FAA and the airlines have become too cozy. Oberstar said the committee's investigation was begun after two whistleblowers approached congress after years of trying to correct the inspection problems.

Oberstar called for the FAA to "clean house from top to bottom.” According to Rep. Oberstar, “the relaxed relationship between the FAA and the airlines have led to the sort of lax enforcement that allowed Southwest Airlines to fly at least 117 aircraft past mandatory inspection deadlines.”

Oberstar also said he believes similar violations may have occurred involving other airlines, but that those persons who have such evidence are afraid to come forward. What does this disturbing situation say about the integrity of senior management at the airlines and the independence of regulatory agencies like the FAA? Should consumers be worried? The short answer is a resounding yes! The reason is a lack of trust and integrity on the part of airline executives and the FAA.

When government agencies such as the FAA, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are compromised to the point where leaders fail to lead objectively, and government inspectors fail to perform their duties and uphold the sacred public trust, it is time to “clean house” and change the culture of those organizations as Rep. Oberstar suggests.

What is happening here is more serious than just coziness and a few omissions by business leaders and government agencies. What is happening here is a blatant disregard for consumer safety and the welfare of our citizens. If warranted, the Department of Justice and federal prosecutors should be asked to investigate and bring criminal charges against those government officials and corporate leaders who knowingly abused the law and abdicated their sworn responsibility to the public by placing an unsuspecting public in danger. In China, they shoot officials who disgrace their office and disregard the public good! While such penalties are extreme, a harsh message needs to be sent to those men and women we have entrusted with the safety of our airlines, drugs, food supply, and products. That message is simply this: honor your oath by doing your job; and, uphold the laws you swore to obey and enforce. If you cannot do this, quit your job. If you fail to uphold the laws, you run the risk of federal prosecution and prison.

I believe this is where the Southwest Airlines incident crosses the line. When airline executives knowingly thwart the law and risky public safety, it is criminal intent. You cannot convince me that Southwest Airlines, which is managed by hundreds of intelligent and competent people, overlooked one of the basic safety issues of an airline -- compliance with FAA inspections. It is no longer a matter of sloppy documentation and lax oversight; it is criminal behavior on the part of Southwest Airline executives and FAA inspectors who looked the other way. Rep. Oberstar is correct in calling for a top-to-bottom investigation. In order to stop these types of blatant violations, it will require much more than a slap on the wrist. Southwest and the FAA must be held accountable to the full extent of the law.

About the Author: Tom Hinton is president of CRI Global, LLC, a training and consulting firm that helps its clients create a “Culture of Excellence” in the workplace. He is the author of four books and a popular speaker at corporate and association meetings. For information, email him at: or visit:

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