Southwest's Grounding Leaves Riders Up in Air

In the wake of federal criticism, low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines took swift action earlier this month, grounding 44 aircraft as part of an internal investigation into claims that it had failed to properly inspect its planes. Operations were back to normal the following day, but the groundings resulted in the cancellation of 130 flights nationwide, about 4 percent of those scheduled. A statement from Southwest said the action was taken after the airline discovered "an ambiguity" in its testing records as part of an internal audit. In addition, Southwest suspended three workers and hired an outside investigator to look into the accusations, signaling that there may be more shakeups to come for an airline that has been considered one of the safest and best managed in the industry.

The internal probe was spurred by a record $10.2-million fine levied by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that accused the airline of continuing to fly 117 airplanes on nearly 60,000 flights between June 18, 2006 and March 14, 2007, after missing mandatory safety checks. The FAA also accused Southwest of continuing to fly the planes on an additional 1,451 flights even after noticing their lapse. The most serious allegations address 47 Boeing 737s that missed mandatory checks for fuselage cracks. Boeing released a statement on March 6 that in the manufacturer's opinion, "the safety of the fleet was not compromised."

Southwest initially expressed surprise at the FAA's penalty, and some sources are questioning the agency's role in the controversy. In an appearance on CNN, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly stated that the FAA had been notified of the inspection schedule and had led the airline to believe it was in compliance with guidelines.

Both Southwest and FAA officials are scheduled to testify before the House of Representatives in April as part of a hearing convened by Representative James Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Several FAA investigators have complained that the agency had a cozy relationship with Southwest, whose top management includes several former FAA officials. According to documents released by the committee, the whistleblowers say that safety concerns about the carrier—some raised as early as 2003—were not taken seriously by FAA managers, and that some inspectors were pressured to end investigations.

Southwest has undergone a rapid expansion in the past few years, now managing over 3,300 flights per day to 32 states, with the largest number of departures serving Las Vegas, Chicago, Phoenix, and Baltimore/Washington. Though not a top carrier in the meetings industry, Southwest has made an effort to capture more group and business travel recently, and is a brand with huge consumer loyalty. Reactions to the news on Southwest's famously open blog, "Nuts About Southwest," were a mix of customers who expressed disappointment and those who vowed to standby the airline.

Barry Gringorten, managing director for Conference Management Associates in Sarasota, FL, expressed one common reaction from meeting planners, that the findings would only make the airline safer in the future: "Southwest is not the first airline to be caught maintenance-wanting, and we've learned that once tagged, FAA's resultant meticulous scrutiny quickly elevates them to the topmost 'safe-airline' tier. Consequently, we would feel very secure contracting them for our clientele."

That perspective may change if the airline faces a larger investigation that disrupts its schedule. "No planes have crashed, and most people think it's a government issue," said John Hunt, director of operations for Chicago-based Travel Technology Group. He has some clients who use Southwest to attend trade shows in Las Vegas. "But if they're grounding planes, that affects people... Now we're going to take a wait-and-see attitude. Now we're going to run some internal reports."

Ultimately, however, Hunt thinks the airline will bounce back. "There will be no bad result from this," he said.

Originally published March 24, 2008