September 2 - FAA Decision To Not Ground Southwest Airlines’ Aircraft Raises Serious Questions

Agency’s True Customers Have a Right to Answers

September 2, 2009, RADNOR, PA--Business Travel Coalition (BTC) today released the following statement regarding the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) decision to allow Southwest Airlines to continue to fly Boeing 737s with illegal parts until the end of 2009.


FAA’s announcement yesterday that Southwest Airlines may continue to fly aircraft until December 24, 2009 with unapproved parts raises more questions than it answers and once again undermines confidence that FAA acts as a true regulatory agency. Only by following established and long-standing protocols will the integrity of the safety system be maintained, a necessary condition for regaining the confidence of the flying public after the mishaps of 2008 (1).

FAA Logic

FAA said in its statement yesterday that its technical review “determined that the unapproved part would not prevent safe operation of the airplanes,” however, FAA goes on to say that “each plane must be physically inspected for wear and tear every seven days.” FAA’s logic is difficult to comprehend. 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 FAA must have been concerned enough to make weekly inspections a condition in the agency’s agreement with Southwest.

FAA needs to understands who its customer is. FAA rules were created to ensure significant margins of safety for the flying public. Under the current administration, BTC was hopeful that FAA would change direction from treating the airlines as customers to focusing on the safety and security of passengers.

Questions For Which The Public Deserves Answers

1. Are there any safety implications associated with this part?

2. Can FAA unequivocally state that a failure of this part would have no impact on the safety of flight? If there were an accident caused directly or indirectly by this unapproved part, who would be accountable, 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? Are not such protocols in place to guard against subjective FAA judgments? 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 FAA investigate Southwest’s overall policies, practices and processes for overseeing aircraft maintenance outsourcing now that a deep flaw in the airline’s program has been discovered?

7. Will this precedent allow other airlines to violate long-standing and routine airworthiness regulations with an expectation that the FAA will be permissive? Will smaller carriers with less clout and fewer flights be afforded the same deals?

The Associated Press reports 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? More importantly, does Southwest’s successful lobbying efforts point to a still too-cozy relationship with an FAA that continues to consider airlines as its true customer. This is a very disturbing development in light of the strong message Congress sent to FAA last year stating clearly that the traveling public is FAA’s only customer.

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