Experts Argue Over Whether Southwest Has a Pattern of Lax Maintenance

Apr 25, 2018

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Southwest Airlines’ emphasis on many short flights with quick turnarounds for its aircraft has led to a maintenance culture that emphasizes getting planes in the air right away instead of addressing potential safety issues, according to people who spoke in an Associated Press story published this week.

Other experts, however, disagreed, saying there’s no indication the airline didn’t do everything it could to prevent accidents like the one that took the life of a 43-year-old mother of two last week.

According to Bret Oestreich, national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association and himself a Southwest technician, the airline’s been cutting corners for years to maximize profits. Earlier this year, Oestreich accused Southwest of not hiring enough mechanics — 3.3 per plane, the lowest in the industry, compared to 11.2 mechanics per plane for United and 7.5 mechanics per plane for American Airlines.

(Neither Southwest nor Oestreich responded to requests for comment.)

But Joy Finnegan, editor in chief of Aviation Maintenance Magazine, based in Atlanta, said the public shouldn’t rush to vilify Southwest in the wake of the engine explosion that caused the passenger death on Flight 1380 last week, the first passenger fatality since the airline began flying commercially in 1971, and the first on a US commercial airline since 2009. Southwest has not only begun inspecting all old fan blades, but also all new fan blades, a move not yet required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The thing that’s really important for laypeople to this industry to understand is that airlines have operational specifications that are approved by the FAA, and that includes their inspection cycles and all the approved documents that they must follow,” she said in a telephone interview. “There’s no getting around this.”

Still, AP pointed out the millions of dollars the airline’s had to pay out in safety-violation fines over the years, and not one but two incidents in the last decade where a roof panel on the plane blew off. In addition, the airline, whose business model involves a large number of short, direct routes instead of the industry’s standard hub-and-spoke model, meaning that Southwest aircraft have to be turned around more often — an average of 5.3 flights per day compared to 2.8 to 3.4 flights per day at the Big Three (American, Delta and United).

Robert Laskin, a turbine-engine service technician for Dallas Airmotive, said the flight-per-day count was deceptive. What really matters, he said, is whether an airplane or its parts have reached its lifetime capacity of usage.

“All the parts have a limit of cycles, and I don’t care how many flights you’re making, the life’s limit of that engine is mandated in starts and hours, and the durability is engineered into the product, so if it’s a 40,000-cycle part, it’s supposed to last 40,000 cycles,” he said by telephone. “That has very little do with the guy kicking the tires and getting the plane out of the gate. Southwest — any airline — isn’t stretching those numbers.”

Finnegan said it was impossible to say that the additional flights translated to worse safety, or that a corporate emphasis on quick turnarounds was unusual.

“All the airlines have that pressure, not just Southwest,” Finnegan said “They have their shorter legs, but all that does is add a cycle or two to the day.” (A cycle is one takeoff and landing.)

If anything, she said, Southwest has an advantage over other fleets, in that it’s made up entirely of 737s, streamlining maintenance for a crew that doesn’t have to adjust to different plane types for each job.

“It’s a positive, because they can train their mechanics on that one platform,” Finnegan said. “They have extensive knowledge about the 737. Take a look at Delta, on the other hand, which has the most diverse fleet in the industry — mechanics may have to run between an A320 to a 737 to a 757 in the same day, while the Southwest team would only need work on a 737.”

Southwest operates the largest 737 fleet in the world, flying more than 700 737s, and has over 47 years of experience with the aircraft.

“The 737 and CFM International’s engines are designed to be highly utilized and are flown millions of cycles by airlines around the world every year, including Southwest,” the airline said in a statement emailed to TPG. “Our FAA-approved Aircraft Maintenance Program supports the way we operate the aircraft, being simultaneously driven by cumulative cycles, hours and calendar days — the more we fly, the more maintenance we do.  The maintenance program we’ve built, and continually evolve, meets or exceeds FAA mandates. Any suggestion that Southwest aircraft or engines are more at risk because of the number of trips we operate per day is not accurate. Safety is our uncompromising priority, and our aircraft are maintained in direct relation to the number of hours (cycles) they are flown.”

Still, relations between Southwest’s maintenance staff and management were bad enough that in October 2017 the FAA published a report prompted by several whistleblower complaints by Southwest mechanics. It found that a hostile culture had arisen between the airline and its maintenance staff, potentially endangering passengers.

“The environment at Southwest Airlines — specifically lack of communication, lack of training, perception that airworthiness findings will result in disciplinary actions for all involved to include mid-level managers — if not addressed will impact the value of quality having a direct effect on the status of aircraft airworthiness,” the report said.

But Laskin said he suspects that, ultimately, no one airline or maintenance crew will be found at fault.

“People want to point the finger and find blame, but sometimes things just happen,” he said. “It’s a machine.”

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