Analysis

LUV Struck Again By Check Neglect

As probably the most successful airline ever, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines (SWA) has enjoyed excellent relations with passengers, investors and staff through most of its 44-year history.

Yet behind the appealing façade cracks have been appearing – sometimes literally – as the low-cost carrier, which trades as LUV, lurches between maintenance mishaps.

The latest, on February 24, saw the airline remove 128 737-700s – almost a fifth of its fleet – from service when it realised that scheduled checks on back-up hydraulic systems had not been performed.

As oversights go, this was not so serious, and later the same day the FAA allowed the affected aircraft to return to service provided the checks were carried out promptly.

An amicable resolution, then, but one that has also occurred while the FAA and SWA are locked in a $12m lawsuit over improper replacement of fuselage skins on 44 aircraft.

The airline is contesting a fine over work it outsourced to Aviation Technical Services from 2006 to 2009. The FAA claims a batch of skin installations – which SWA was ultimately responsible for – ignored established procedures.

“This could have resulted in gaps between the skin and the surface to which it was being mounted. Such gaps could allow moisture to penetrate the skin and lead to corrosion,” stated the FAA.

The proposed $12m fine – the second-largest in the FAA’s history – would be in addition to a $7.5m penalty that SWA paid in 2011 over missed monitoring for fuselage cracking.

In that case 145,000 passengers were estimated to have used unchecked aircraft, and the lax oversight appeared to have repercussions when, in 2011, a five-foot hole tore open in the roof of one of SWA’s older 737s, causing depressurisation and an emergency landing at a military airfield.

However, the NTSB later ascribed the fault to shoddy workmanship during the aircraft’s manufacture by Boeing.

Nonetheless, the incident didn’t help public perceptions about SWA’s maintenance, especially as the NTSB report only arrived two years later.

Last year, near the time when the FAA proposed its $12m fine, SWA’s long-serving VP of maintenance, Jim Sokol, announced his retirement. He was replaced in September by Landon Nitschke, SWA’s former senior director of maintenance.

Nitschke arrived at the airline in 2012 from Aviation Technical Services, the MRO at the heart of SWA’s current lawsuit. Thankfully, though, he joined ATS after the work in dispute was performed.

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