Money vs. Safety

  • Southwest Airlines is the second largest domestic airline in the US, after the Delta Airlines. Of late, Southwest Airlines, headquartered in Texas, is a subject of interest to travelers. The airline provides low fare flights. Aviation safety is essential in keeping the relative risks of accidents at an acceptable low level. The International Business Times indicated in the report that the Southwest Airlines have a history of maintenance problems. In 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed a fine of $10.2 million penalty on the airline for failure to conduct mandatory inspections for fuselage fatigue and cracking of its Boeing 737s.

    According to the FAA records, the jetliner involved in the Friday-scare cracks had other identified cracks fixed in 2010. Southwest Airlines have older airplanes, which have proved pricey to repair in terms of costs and time. According to aviation experts, fatigue cracks are common in old jets. Purchase of new airplanes did not become a priority for aviation companies during the difficult years that followed the September 11 terror attacks. For many years, aviation companies claimed that new airplanes are fuel efficient, but they also maintain that no plane, if properly maintained, is too old to fly safe. In the last two decades, Southwest Airlines tried to save money and, in the process, sacrificed the safety of its flights.


    The airline industry is in a constant state of crisis. Southwest Airlines has only one type of airplane, which it uses to train their mechanics. While most airlines in the United States have declared bankruptcy in the past ten years, Southwest Airlines remained solvent, consistently generating profits for the past 39 years. The airline has mastered the air of cost cutting, using current strategies to keep operating costs low. The airline obviously knows that new airplanes offer the much-needed fuel efficiency and safety. It, however, relies on the notion that no plane too old to fly safe when properly maintained.

    1. a) Southwest Airline buys used airplanes to save money: Southwest Airlines allegedly delays the delivery of new airplanes, filling the gap with used airplanes to reduce spending over the years. Furthermore, the company often raises dividend to buy more shares. The management, through the CEO, Kelly Gary, announced they would delay 30 firm orders for new Boeing 737s, cutting the capital expenditure by more than $500 million by 2018.

    While delaying the purchase of new airlines, the company intends to purchase ten used 737 airplanes from Canada’s West Jet over the next two years. The airplanes, aged between 11 to 12 years old, will fly until the airline procures the more fuel-efficient 737 models later in the decade. The airline refused to disclose financial details of the deal with West Jet during its annual meeting held in Dallas. In addition, Southwest Airlines has consistently benefited from the several years of low investment grade and credit rating. For example, there are issues on the Boeing 737-300, which sources indicate that the jetliner is still in use despite poor maintenance issues attributed to outsourcing maintenance services. The Boeing 737 is the only jet with an average age of 19-year old fleet.

    1. b) Over use of their airplanes: Southwest Airlines faces serious maintenance problem with their 737 model. The flight has issues on metal fatigue associated with the increased number of landing cycles. There are critical issues on the Boeing 737-300, which sources indicate that the jetliner is still in use despite its poor maintenance issues. The issues are traceable to outsourced maintenance. Again, the Boeing 737 is the only jet with an average age of 19 years old fleets.

    The airline outsources its maintenance. This has raised plenty of debate on the quality of services the airline receives from its maintenance partners, most of them located abroad. As aviation technology becomes more sophisticated, so will the airplane maintenance and servicing. For example, a typical passenger jet has over four million parts. The traditional maintenance work of fixing loose airframe, rivets and tightening of fasteners is just but a section. More attention needs to go into the non-traditional maintainable parts.

    1. c) Cutting down costs on repairs: The airline intends to cut costs by doing most or all the airplane maintenance and repairs abroad. The recent malfunctions that have affected the US airlines are raising questions about the controversial, but growing practice of repairing airplanes abroad. For example, in 2009, passengers in the flight 518 commuting from Omaha to Phoenix, shocked by the terrifying shriek caused by the technical failure of the pressure seal located near the cabin door. Fortunately, the plane had to divert to Denver and all on board were safe.

    The airline sends its airplanes to developing countries in South America and Asia for repairs. Before the pressure failure, the company had sent a Boeing 737 for a complete overhaul at Aeroman Company in El Salvador. Mechanics installed one of the key parts of the door backwards. The plane made an unprepared landing just as a preventive measure, admitting that the Federal Aviation Administration had issued violation warnings against both the Aeroman and United States Airways for lapse maintenance and consequent oversight.

    1. d) Globalization of maintenance of the airlines: The globalization of airlines has undergone significant transformations. Until a few years ago, American airlines uphold most of their airplanes. According to the regulations of the FAA, all airlines have to overhaul all their airplanes after every two years, where amalgamation mechanics at the airlines did the occupation. However, this directive was applicable until 2002, after which American airlines slashed flights due to bankruptcy. Since the bankruptcy, the airlines have come up with a means of survival. One of the survival tactics was through cutting down their expenses. One of the major areas of cutting costs is the maintenance section.

    If an airline does the maintenance of its airline in the US, it uses up to $100 per hour for each mechanic, inclusive of the overhead and other expenses. When similar work occurs at an independent, non-union shop, the airline spends close to half of the same price. Furthermore, the airlines spend less in third world countries such as El Salvador. As a response to the bankruptcy crisis, Southwest Airlines had to send most of its airplanes for an overhaul at the confidential repair stores both in the US and overseas. In fact, 20% of the airlines send their airplanes to repair facilities located in developing countries.

    1. e) The advancing airline technology: Airplane maintenance is bound to get sophisticated with improvements in technology. Aviation industry analysts state that there are over 700 FAA approved revamp companies in foreign countries such as Ethiopia, China, India and Indonesia. The Aeroman Company, located in El Salvador, is currently gaining popularity with its increasing number of businesses drawn from the US Airways, Southwest and other popular US carriers. Southwest Airlines often fly empty airplanes in need of a complete overhaul to Aeroman Company hangers at the nearest international airports. Mechanics from the company strip off the inside of a plane to bare metal. From there, they fix up cracks and rust as well as old wiring. They then re-assemble the parts, and the repairs supposedly end there. The plane is then flown back to the US.

    When passengers learn that an airplane was fixed in a developing country, they have a reason to raise eyebrows because the seeking cheap labor for the airplanes implies poor quality work. Industry analysts argue that there is no motive for concern because Aeroman and the additional distant corporation are doing a quality job. The experts further maintain that they have witnessed unprecedented growth of foreign companies in the last decade. Similarly, air travel has grown significantly over the same period. Flight safety has also improved. If aviation companies were compromising the safety of their flights, safety would still be a concern.

    1. f) Poor FAA oversight and inspection of the repairs: The Inspector General at the Department of Transportation presented the warning that the FAA authorities are not constantly monitoring airplane maintenance works in a proper manner. The Inspector General investigated the checks and balances of the maintenance works and further warned that the FAA inspectors were not monitoring the works in a proper way. In their defense, Peggy Gilligan, the FAA Administrator for aviation safety, argued that one of the reasons is that the FAA inspectors are doing their job well on the airplanes. He verified that the sense of balance was in place to see that the repair and maintenance works are done properly. When the US airline sends their airplanes to a repair shop in the US or any other country, the work is under the supervision of FAA-certified technicalities together with crack inspectors working with the mend corporation, the airline, and the FAA.

    The FAA does not have inclusive statistics on whether every maintenance and repairs were made by an airline or outsourced to third parties. It means that the FAA does not necessitate an airline to report exactly where it sends its airplane and the kinds of repairs done to the airplanes. In this case, it means that the FAA officials are not even aware of the number of airlines to inspect. The problem was apparent at the foreign repair shops where the Inspector General took the investigative procedures.

    Some of the problems that the Inspector General highlighted include untrained mechanics; require tools and unsafe storage space of the airplane parts. The FAA administrators told the Inspector General that they would look into the issues he had raised. The fact that there have been a few crashes in the recent past masks the troubling trend that the public cannot appreciate, because airlines have been slashing their costs of airplane maintenance. The edge of safety is constantly narrowing, and the absence of accidents does not mean that airlines are getting any safer. It is recommended that the FAA monitor closely the maintenance and repair of airplanes. If the FAA does its job, flight safety will improve by a considerable standard.

    1. f) Outsourcing cheap labor: Southwest Airlines has enjoyed relative profitability and stability for over 40 years. The airline achieved its milestones by putting the priorities of its workers at hand, implementing a layoff policy, increasing worker wages, and outsourcing airplane maintenance and repairs. However, the recent labor outsourcing instigated the Southwest’s ramp workers protests in Midway Airport, Chicago. Negotiators decided to take negotiations to the public by announcing that Southwest Airlines had requested the right to outsource jobs. Outsourcing of the labor was an attempt to reduce operational costs, but it did not work well with the company’s employees.

    Southwest Airlines officials asserted that they did not have intentions to outsource; they were offered a contract good enough for them to consider outsourcing. The employees thought that the outsourcing would erode the Southwest’s culture. They opined that the airline should use other means to cut costs. At some point, the airline prefers to outsource some of jobs at low costs to do away with the pressures to meet the high costs of compensating employees. Furthermore, it indicates that Southwest Airlines will be ready for negotiations just in case any good arises out of it. Southwest Airlines have cost problems that it must address. Such a realization implies that more clashes with the labor can break out anytime.

    From the arguments above, it is clear that Southwest Airlines has sacrificed the safety of their flights in its efforts to cut down costs and remain profitable. The presence of a few crashes in the recent past masks the troubling trend that the public cannot determine, because airlines have been slashing their maintenance costs. According to the FAA records, the jetliner involved in the Friday scare cracks had other identified cracks fixed in 2010. The Southwest Airlines have old airplanes, which are expensive to maintain. According to aviation experts, fatigue cracks are common in older jets, which reduce the safety of airplanes. Purchasing of new airplanes has never been a priority for most airlines in the difficult aviation years that followed the September 11. Acquisition of new airplanes strains the financial statuses of airline companies. The Southwest Airlines have serious maintenance problems with their 737s airplanes, according to the paper conclusion. The airplanes have issues of metal fatigue associated with the increased number of landing cycles. The airline outsources its airplane maintenance and repairs, which has raised plenty of debate on the quality of works done on the airplanes.