The following statement was released today by the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) regarding the US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) decision to allow Southwest Airlines to continue to fly Boeing 737s with illegal parts until the end of 2009.
The FAA said in its statement that its technical review “determined that the unapproved part would not prevent safe operation of the airplanes,” however, the FAA goes on to say that “each plane must be physically inspected for wear and tear every seven days.” Is this a part that if it fails it would not be a safety issue? If this is the case, why inspect the parts every seven days? If on the other hand a failed part would cause a safety issue, why are these airplanes still flying? The FAA statement was dead silent on the question of whether a failure of the part would have an impact on the safety of flight. However, someone at the FAA must have been concerned enough to make weekly inspections a condition in the agency’s agreement with Southwest.
THE PUBLIC DESERVES ANSWERS
1. Are there any safety implications associated with this part?
2. Can the FAA unequivocally state that a failure of this part would have no impact on the safety of flights? If there were an accident caused by this unapproved part, who will be accountable, the FAA or Southwest Airlines?
3. If there are no safety implications associated with this part, why have a certification process that disallows flying with unapproved parts in the first place? What is the difference in principle between this case and when American Airlines was forced to ground over half its fleet in 2008 over wire shields?
4. If a part is found to have failed, will FAA ground the aircraft in question?
5. Will Southwest be held accountable for not having a failsafe process in place to monitor this aircraft maintenance outsourcing program wherein over a three-year period 80 Southwest aircraft were fitted with unapproved parts?
6. Will the FAA investigate Southwest’s overall policies, practices, and processes for overseeing aircraft maintenance outsourcing, now that this flaw has been exposed?
7. Will this precedent allow other airlines to violate long-standing and routine airworthiness regulations with an expectation that the FAA will be permissive?
The AP reported that, “Southwest had lobbied for more time to fix the problem. The airline argued that the parts in question, which deflect hot engine exhaust away from control flaps on the wings, were scarce. Now it will get nearly four months to find replacement parts.”
If these parts are so scarce and mission-critical, why did Southwest not have a verification process in place to mitigate the risk that twenty percent of its fleet could be taken out of service? Does Southwest’s successful lobbying efforts point to a still too-cozy relationship with the FAA? This is a disturbing development in light of the strong message Congress sent to the FAA last year stating that the traveling public is the FAA’s only customer.