Is what's good for Southwest Airlines good for the traveling public?
You would think so, given Wednesday's decision by the Federal Aviation Administration not to ground dozens of Southwest aircraft until unapproved airplane parts can be replaced.
This potentially dangerous decision is good for Southwest, which lobbied Washington to allow it to continue flying the planes. Southwest argued that taking 86 (the number reported by the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 31) of its Boeing 737s out of service would cause flight delays to ripple through the U.S. air travel system. The FAA, concluding that giving the low-fare pioneer until Dec. 24 to install new, approved parts would not pose a safety risk, agreed with the airline.
This is a mind-boggling decision for the same agency that fined Southwest $7.5 million last year for operating 60,000 flights by aircraft that were out of compliance with FAA rules.
Just this summer, a Southwest plane was forced to make an unscheduled landing after a foot-wide hole opened up in the body of the aircraft.
Last year on Capitol Hill, members of Congress accused FAA inspectors of being too palsy with Southwest, an airline they were supposed to be regulating. How does this decision look in light of that history? Should the millions of people who fly Southwest every year be reassured?
Southwest is, of course, pleased that the FAA (www.faa.gov) sees things its way. In a statement Wednesday, the carrier assured its customers that they are in no danger. Said Mike Van de Ven, Southwest's chief operating officer, "The parts have been inspected, and the FAA agrees that they meet the requirements of the aircraft manufacturer, Boeing.''
The unauthorized parts were installed by a subcontractor to whom Southwest (www.southwest.com) has - like many major carriers - outsourced work. More and more, airlines are outsourcing maintenance, sometimes to overseas stations that receive visits from FAA inspectors but not enough; concerns have been raised by U.S. labor unions and industry observers that there are not enough traveling FAA inspectors to conduct effective international safety inspections.
The nearly always sensible Business Travel Coalition has weighed in with a critique, raising a number of thought-provoking questions. The answers should interest everyone who flies.
"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?'' the BTC asks, rather logically. "Are not such protocols in place to guard against subjective FAA judgments? What is the difference between this case and when American Airlines was forced to ground over half its fleet in 2008 over wire shields?''
Further, BTC (http://btcweb.biz) asks the agency "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?''
Separately, Southwest announced on Wednesday that it will allow customers to check-in for flights up to 25 hours before departure - for a new $10 fee. That's after business-class fliers and frequent-flier program members board the aircraft. This new move erodes the long-standing practice of allowing passengers to board without seat assignments. It has always been a dubiously efficient system, but if Southwest is going to keep it, why allow so many exceptions?
Personally, this frequent flier thinks Southwest should can the canned humor of the cabin crews, just assign seats to everyone and, above all, inspect their planes, fully and promptly, every time.