Bear with me as I try to stop my head from spinning plum off my torso from the latest set of events related to Southwest Airlines and their “thin skinned” Boeing 737-300 series aircraft.

Just two weeks ago, FlyersRights.org was reeling from the news that the FAA had secretly allowed the airlines to remove Oxygen Generation Canisters from the lavatories on 6,000 jets. They left the masks intact (the illusion of protection), but removed the oxygen, putting countless numbers of unsuspecting passengers in harm’s way. The FAA responded to critics by saying that mid-air decompression events were “rare” and that no one would be hurt. Really? Mid-air decompression events are far more prevalent then terrorist even, and I’m only talking about the decompression events that actually get reported to the FAA. Many more go unreported to avoid further scrutiny and possible grounding of an airline’s fleet.

Just last Friday (April Fool’s Day) , I awaken to the news that American Airlines flight 547 had a mid-air decompression where the oxygen masks were “manually” deployed (not sure if that means they failed to automatically deploy.. or not) but passengers and flight attendants passed out because of an apparent lack of oxygen coming through some of the masks. (See this Wikipedia table related to Time of Useful Consciousness). Then, just a few short hours later, Southwest Airlines flight 812 has a gaping hole 5’ long by 1’ wide that opens up in the roof at 34,000 feet, which causes a sudden explosive decompression and they divert to Yuma for an emergency landing. The passengers sit in 100 degree heat for several hours (for their safety) while awaiting another aircraft to take them to Sacramento.

This has to be an April Fool’s Day joke, she says…still blonde…and still hoping!

Visions of the airline groundings and cancellations disaster of early 2008 come rushing back, the horror of our hotline ringing off the hook with stranded passengers whose Southwest Airlines Flights had been cancelled due to thin skins and cracks in the fuselage, followed quickly by tens of thousands of American Airlines passengers whose flights were cancelled due to wire bundling issues. In both cases, flights were cancelled as a pre-emptive move to avoid further FAA scrutiny and get ahead of a problem they had “misrepresented” to the FAA.

But when the FAA did send out an “impromptu” investigator to see if the cracks and wire bundles were fixed as stated by the airlines, they discovered that indeed they were NOT. Interestingly enough, they can fine an airline for missing security checks, but there is NO mandate that the airlines report these fundamental safety issues. Are you concerned? We are…

Were it not for concerns over the safety of Southwest planes that were brought to light by FAA whistleblowers, who took the information to Congress, no one would have known that they missed their safety/security checks. But employees of the airlines who are tasked with making these checks don’t have whistleblower protections. And they should!

The FAA did fine Southwest Airlines 10 million dollars for “flying past their mandatory security checks” of which $7.5 million was paid. Once the checks were complete, Southwest reported that “no faults in the aircraft skin were found and all aircraft are still safe…don’t put your tickets on e-bay yet,” according to Grant Martin of gadling.com.

But hold on, July 13, 2009, Southwest flight 2294 en route from Nashville Tennessee to Baltimore had a basketball sized hole in the fuselage, full decompression and emergency landing…hmmmmmmmm.

Coincidence?

You see, the FAA has a “Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program” which is just an Advisory Circular that suggests self-policing that neither requires the airlines to inspect certain safety items nor to report any of these vital, structural safety issues. If they detect these cracks during their routine maintenance (for which there is no impetus–in fact it’s counter-intuitive to their culture given that the results could include FAA grounding their fleet for them). Also by leaving the airlines to inspect these critical safety issues, but offering no whistleblower protections to their employees, employees are unmotivated–in fact often dis-incentivized–to report things that might cost the airline money or ground a fleet of aircraft, because they have no whistleblower protections (we’ll get to the solution for this in a minute).

But let’s back up to the oxygen issue for a minute. Is the fox guarding the henhouse here, too? Could it be that the airlines are under the “Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program” when it comes to the testing of the equipment inside the aircraft, such as vital oxygen during a decompression event? At the altitude that both the American Airlines jet and Southwest jet were, there was 30-60 seconds of useful consciousness without ambient oxygen. In the case of Southwest flight 812 it took them 4 and ½ minutes to get down to an altitude where folks could breathe…OMG! Is anyone hyperventilating here?

Get me an air sickness bag!

We don’t know if any poor stiffs (I mean souls) were in the lavatories when all of this happened, but it’s not hard to see how they might have been. And although the airlines will tell you that they have hand held oxygen canisters for medical events to be used by Flight Attendants for our safety in a medical emergency, we have several reports of incidents where in an emergency some poor unsuspecting flight attendant reached for a hand-held oxygen canister and it was EMPTY…although we really shouldn’t worry about that because in both the American Airlines and Southwest cases of last Friday at least one flight attendant passed out DUE TO A LACK OF OXYGEN.

Where is the accountability? Who’s guarding our lives, our safety, our ability to trust that the FAA has us in mind when they devise a scheme that allows the airlines to do their own safety checks? Whose idea was it to have the poor airline inspectors NOT have whistleblower protections? Why not swear in each of the airlines’ key safety/security inspectors as officers of the FAA to afford them appropriate whistleblower protections?

What Congressman James Oberstar called the “Culture of Coziness” between the FAA and the airlines has GOT TO STOP. For you, for me, and for the future of air travel in the domestic US.

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