A report of the Department of Transportation Inspector General of April 3, 2008 found that Southwest Airlines had not followed an FAA directive to periodically inspect the fuselages of Boeing 737s (after part of one on an Aloha Airlines 737 blew off in flight in 1988 killing one) and that FAA personnel were aware of and complicit in this non-compliance.
As it was Southwest flew 46 of its 737s without inspections for up to 9 months representing some 60,000 flights transporting 6 million passengers. On March 14, 2007, Southwest reported its violation to an FAA Principal Maintenance Inspector (PMI). The PMI did not ground the planes as he was obliged to do but advised Southwest to make a formal voluntary disclosure so as to avoid paying a penalty. Southwest did not make its official self-disclosure until March 19 and continued to fly the planes until March 23 when it reported having completed inspections of the planes and finding cracks in the fuselage of 5 of them. As a result, Southwest flew the planes for a further 9 days during which time 145,000 passengers were carried in 1,451 flights. The FAA has proposed a $10.2 million fine against Southwest for its activities.
This was not the first time that Southwest had not followed a safety directive. The Inspector General found that it had violated 4 different directives a total of 8 times since December of 2006, including 5 in 2008. The announcement by the FAA that it would conduct an industry wide audit of compliance with its safety directives quickly caused Delta and American to ground scores of planes because of possible missed inspections. United too grounded seven 747s for possible altimeter problems.
All of this is an outgrowth of the Bush Administration’s push for greater self-regulation of industries. At the same time, it is compounded by cozy relationships that develop between what regulators there are and the industries they regulate. Finally, whistleblowers who speak up about problems like those at Southwest continue to be punished. On April 3, 2008, three FAA inspectors testified before Congress about their efforts to call attention to this case. One was removed from his position as an office manager. Another was told to transfer. The third was temporarily removed from overseeing Southwest. The simple fact is that in most cases self-regulation doesn’t work. There is an incentive to maximize profits by not obeying rules and cutting corners. The downside is a catastrophic accident or the public embarrassment of getting caught, but as the current case shows these possibilities do not cause companies to comply in advance but only after one or the other occurs. And then we are left to ask, for how long?
In a related development, on April 8, 2008, American Airlines canceled 430 flights in order to inspect wire bundles in the wheel wells of 300 of its MD-80s. The next day it canceled 1,000 flights and cancellations spread to other airlines. The FAA review of airline safety begun by the allegations against Southwest caused airlines to scramble to make up for lax voluntary adherence to safety guidelines in the past. The result was predictably chaos.