Turbulence ahead for Southwest Airlines?

Will the Federal Aviation Administration follow through on threats to ground 49 Southwest Airlines planes, in addition to the 34 Boeing MAX aircraft  that remain parked?

The issue was created when the airline purchased 88 planes from more than a dozen foreign airlines, dating back to 2013. Southwest then hired a firm to review the maintenance records to ensure everything was up to U.S. standards. Southwest Airlines was then able, per the authority delegated by the FAA, to certify the planes as compliant with U.S. standards. At that point the planes were incorporated into Southwest’s fleet of 751 aircraft.

In May of 2018, FAA inspectors found discrepancies in some of the records and the airline was given two years to verify that all necessary maintenance and repairs had been successfully completed. As of October 29, 2019, the airline had inspected only 39 of those 88 planes.

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As the FAA investigation continued, it was discovered that 30 planes had undocumented repairs and 42 more did not conform to agency standards.

In the current MAX-era, it is alarming that airlines are given, much as the FAA gave to Boeing, authority to certify their planes as compliant. Still, Southwest maintains that its planes are safe to fly and that it's complying with all FAA directives as the plane inspections continue. 

Over the last 19 years, Southwest Airlines has, according to Violationtracker, been fined by the FAA 262 times for aviation-related safety items and has paid $17,516,375 in fines.

One of the more glaring decisions regarding maintenance was made following the emergency of Southwest Airlines flight 3472. On August 27, 2016, the aircraft suffered an uncontained engine failure, where parts of the engine penetrated the fuselage of the aircraft, causing a decompression. The flight was able to land safely, and no injuries were reported among the 99 passengers and 5 crew members.

The subsequent in-depth accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board recommended immediate inspections on similar engines being used by Southwest Airlines and others at the time. The FAA decided to instead make such inspections optional, allowing the airlines to decide whether or not the engine inspections were necessary. 

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The airlines involved replied that they were confident with the standing recommended maintenance schedule provided by the engine manufacturer, CFM International, and would not remove planes from service for the recommended inspections. Even when CFM International agreed with the NTSB recommendation of a faster inspection cycle, airlines opted not to do so.

In April 2018 Southwest Airlines flight 1380, flying from LaGuardia to Dallas, experienced an uncontained engine failure. Once again, the failure caused parts of the engine to pierce the aircraft fuselage, creating a decompression and leading to the death of one of the passengers aboard. The same type of engine was involved in both accidents. 

Airline executives are fond of saying that safety is their number one priority, yet more often than not it is profit that drives decisions. The FAA is determined to continue their intense scrutiny of the Southwest Airlines maintenance records to ensure everything is within the guidelines. We are currently enjoying the safest era ever for commercial jet travel in the United States. Let’s hope that record continues.     

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.