Profit Before Safety?
Does Southwest Airlines care so much about on-time performance and having the reputation of a profitable carrier that it would overlook cracks in the fuselage? Would the airline go so far to punish its own mechanics if they reported this or other safety issues?
The January 21, 2015 “settlement” of this recent law suit is scary evidence that could suggest a “maybe” answer to that question, and indicates an industry-wide problem.
There is a history of questionable incidents on Southwest Airlines that eTN has been reporting about for some time. In March of 2008, the FAA accused Southwest Airlines of falsifying safety reports. In June of 2009, mechanics raised alarm for outsourcing major maintenance work to El Salvador. In August 2009, the airline grounded 46 planes.
In April 2011, Southwest Airlines grounded 81 planes for inspection following an incident in which one of its flights was forced to make an emergency landing at a military base in Yuma, Arizona, after a 3-foot hole tore open in the fuselage of the plane. No one got hurt so far, but apparently Southwest Airlines did not learn anything from this incident.
On July 2, 2014, Southwest Airlines mechanic Charles Hall performed maintenance on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 aircraft and discovered two cracks in the aircraft fuselage and documented them. Discovery of these cracks resulted in the aircraft being removed from service to be repaired.
Instead of commending the mechanic, Southwest Airlines issued a “Letter of Instruction” advising Charles Hall that he had acted outside the scope of his work. This letter said: “Please be aware that any further violation may result in further disciplinary action.”
In addition to the lawsuit, seven American mechanics – six from Chicago and one from Dallas – filed two federal whistleblower complaints against their airline alleging that managers pressured the employees to breach federal rules on aircraft maintenance related to wing cracks and inspections for suspected lightning strikes.
The whistleblower complaints claim the company and managers intimidated union representatives from aiding the FAA investigations into the matter claiming it could complicate the company’s merger integration with U.S. Airways.
The judge in the Southwest case stated that the warning letter had the effect of intimidating the mechanic and dissuading other Southwest Airlines mechanics from reporting the discovery of cracks, abnormalities, or defects out of fear of reprisal discipline.
The case was ultimately settled in a January 16 agreement.
Southwest Airlines agreed to pay Mr. Hall compensation for reasonable attorney fees and expenses, and pay US$35,000 within 10 days of final approval of the agreement.