Serious problems were exposed this week by the Southwest Airline Pilots Association when the organization’s leader said that 80 percent of its maintenance is outsourced.

This is far more than other airlines. United Airlines farms out 51 percent of maintenance, Alaska 49 percent, Delta 43 percent, and American 33 percent, the union said.

Last Friday, Southwest declared an operational emergency at several of its facilities nationwide. This came amid growing maintenance problems, which the airline’s lawyers called a “job action” by Southwest’s mechanics. A letter to the mechanics’ union blamed about 100 mechanics for most of the increase in planes out of service.

Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly struck a more conciliatory tone but said that reaching a new contract for the mechanics after years of stalled talks would require “more supplier flexibility” – meaning the option to send more scheduled maintenance work abroad.

The backlash by Southwest management is not conducive to safety. Their zeal to squeeze every last penny out of their U.S.-based mechanics seems to be contributing to a corporate culture in which everything is stretched to the breaking point.

The pilots association’s press release stated, “The last few weeks have highlighted how poorly upper management at Southwest Airlines is performing, how it truly views labor, how ineffective its communication and execution of our daily operation are, and how everyone at OUR airline should be concerned.”

The operational emergency comes less than a year after a woman was sucked out of a Southwest window in-flight when an engine fan blade broke loose and smashed her window.

Southwest’s legal team countered on Friday by announcing it would sue the union representing its mechanics, alleging an illegal work action is the cause of its out-of-service aircraft, leading to thousands of delays and cancellations.

The FAA promised heightened oversight of the airline since that incident. Yet the agency allowed Southwest to expedite its ETOPS certification to offer flights to Honolulu. Normally the FAA requires at least 1.5 years of trouble-free operation to issue such a certificate. But this was waived for Southwest.

Southwest plans to fly from North America to Hawaii with Boeing 737-800 aircraft. The 800 is the immediate predecessor of the MAX series type of aircraft used by Lion Air that crashed in Indonesia last year.

Back in November, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive for airlines operating the 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 airliners to alert them to the deadly flaw that is reported to have caused the Lion Air downing.

Over the years, Southwest has racked up numerous FAA fines.

The bottom line has to be safety. The airline’s reputation will depend on it.
While Southwest has had a good accident record for decades, there are now undeniable signs that its margin of safety has deteriorated.

This needs swift management, labor and FAA action to fix its safety and maintenance problems before the inevitable disaster strikes.

Passengers assume airline safety. But when confidence is shaken, they avoid any perceived unsafe airline. Revenue takes an immediate hit.

And with multiple crashes, an airline is out of business.

Paul Hudson
Member, FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee