Friday Rant: Kudos for Southwest & Boeing In the Midst of Crisis

One of my favorite conversation starters when waiting for an airport gate to open is to ask a crew member "So do you know how old the bird is that we're flying today?" Eavesdropping awaiting passengers snap to attention and most pilots ignore me and move away. But the swaggering bomber jacketed Southwest flyers typically smile and say something reassuring. Following last Friday's five-foot top fuselage peel away aboard a Southwest Boeing 737 at 34,000 feet, I think I'll stop asking this question in deference to my fellow passengers' comfort. And in the immediate aftermath of this near disaster, Southwest stepped up to the plate in an unprecedented show of risk intervention and brilliant PR.

Without waiting for government intervention or a plan of action from Boeing, Southwest, according to yesterday's WSJ, voluntarily ground[ed] 79 of its oldest 737s immediately after Friday's incident to inspect them for metal fatigue, a process it finished Tuesday. And while this quick response led to 'hundreds of cancellations and thousands of delays" today's Journal reports that Southwest may well have "set a new model for such events in the industry ... It allowed the carrier to allay passenger concerns and made it better able to adhere to its aggressive inspection timeline with more control over its own destiny.

Reminiscent of backroom chatter in an old "Airplane" movie, today's Journal writes that "Hours after the incident, with the first morning departures looming, Southwest maintenance and engineering chief Brian Hirshman pressed the aircraft manufacturer for answers. 'We gotta start something here,' he said to Boeing executives on a conference call after 1 a.m. last Saturday. Southwest officials wondered, how could a gash that was five feet long and perfectly straight, like a paper cut, have appeared in a plane that was only 15 years old? Boeing didn't know. 'We did not expect this to happen,' a representative of the manufacturer told them."

This may, at first, sound like a wimpy response from Boeing. But the Journal claims that "It was a rare acknowledgment: For decades, Boeing has made a science of accurately predicting when its metal planes would need to be inspected, and possibly repaired, for fatigue... Boeing's miscalculation was a rare slip-up in the system the company uses to keep its planes safe. It then works closely with airlines and regulators to identify and devise fixes before those problems do occur." Boeing's rapid mea culpa quickly resulted in their halving recommended fuselage inspections from "60,000 to 30,000 flights" (the impaired Southwest 737 had flown approximately 40,000) worldwide and also appears to be impacting Boeing's ongoing fatigue testing on the carbon fiber composites used in the construction of their soon to be released Dreamliner.

Without loss of life, this incident, Southwest's rapid response and Boeing's public acknowledgement of "technical missteps" is refreshing. In placing transparency and safety above short term profitability without flinching, two of the largest corporate players in the airline industry have made air travel safer. It isn't worth popping Champagne over, but it's darned encouraging.

- William Busch

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