Holes in the Sky: Southwest Airlines Battles Metal Fatigue and the FAA

With the summer travel season in full swing, America’s top low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines has been the subject of some less-than-flattering exposure lately after a hole ripped open mid-flight in the fuselage of one of the airline’s Boeing 737s in April. Fortunately, in this instance, only one person (a flight attendant) suffered a minor injury after the plane descended 17,000 feet in under a minute. Incidents in the air like this one, however, can be extremely dangerous, and airline safety questions are being raised after Southwest subsequently grounded 79 of its Boeing 737s for inspection.

This is not the first time Southwest has made headlines for the wrong reasons. In a 2009 incident eerily similar to the most recent one, a football-sized hole opened in the fuselage of one of Southwest’s 737s. While no one was seriously injured in that incident, either, the repeated problems raise serious concerns about the safety of some of Southwest’s older airplanes.

In a related story in 2009, Southwest was fined by the FAA for missing mandatory inspection deadlines, in some cases by as much as two and a half years. The FAA fines were $10.2 million, later reduced to $7.5 million. As a result, the airline’s investors sued Southwest’s top officers alleging breach of fiduciary duty by failing to meet FAA standards. That case settled for $3.5 million.

 

More Stringent Safety Inspections Needed?

As for the incident this past April, FAA compliance does not seem to have been the issue. Records show that Southwest was in compliance with its FAA inspection schedule, and the actual 737 involved in the incident had received a “heavy” inspection from the FAA just a year before. This fact could cause speculation as to whether or not the FAA inspections themselves are stringent enough.

Just what causes a hole in a giant airplane? In the case of these Southwest incidents, the answer is metal fatigue. It is not uncommon to find cracks in the fuselages of older planes, but metal fatigue that reaches the severity of a hole being ripped in the fuselage mid-flight seems preventable, or at least noticeable.

The FAA’s own record when it comes to Southwest Airlines is not unblemished. In 2010, a government watchdog faulted the FAA for overlooking missed safety inspections or failing to perform mandatory maintenance on Southwest planes. Further, two “whistleblowers” claimed that FAA management knew about the lapse in safety at Southwest but decided to slow down the FAA inspection schedule so as not to disrupt Southwest’s busy flight schedule and wreak havoc on the nation’s air traffic system.

Meanwhile, Southwest is not the only airline that has had trouble with its 737s. In 1988, a huge chunk of the top of an Aloha Airlines 737 opened up, killing a flight attendant. In the early 1990s, two 737s crashed, one from US Airways and the other from United Airlines, killing 132 and 25 people respectively. These tragedies were blamed not on fuselage holes but rather on faulty rudder control systems. As a result, the FAA now demands regular checks of the rudder systems on all 737s still in the air, but there has been no word yet on whether more rigorous fuselage checks may be in store.

For the sake of all air passengers, hopefully Southwest Airlines and the FAA can work together to avoid some of the mistakes made in the past and place safety inspections above the interest of keeping flight schedules on time. While flight delays and cancellations are a major hassle, they pale in comparison to the unthinkable alternative.