I was traveling and vacationing last week, and I’m now catching-up with some supply chain news over these past few days. 

One of the more interesting and eye catching supply chain stories was that related to Southwest Airlines, which has again been cited by the FAA for a significant maintenance lapse.  On Saturday, August 22, a dispute between the FAA and Southwest over the use of potentially unauthorized parts forced the airline to temporarily ground 46 of its 737 aircraft, nearly 10% of its fleet, forcing significant delays in its service operations. The parts in question, an exhaust gate assembly, functions to protect movable panels on the rear of the wings from being damaged by hot engine exhaust, and according to both the FAA and Southwest, does not pose an immediate safety issue.  According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday (subscription may be required), FAA inspectors and managers maintain that since the specific parts were never authorized for aviation use, the planes containing these parts were technically not fit to carry passengers. According to this WSJ article, an FAA inspector uncovered the parts discrepancy “during a routine inspection” and since then, Southwest “has told us that it plans to replace all of these parts on the affected planes.” Both the FAA and the airline have come up with a plan to replace the suspect parts in less than two weeks.

A follow-on article in today’s Wall Street Journal indicates that the unauthorized use of the subject parts has occurred for up to three years on 82 planes, and has now presented a vexing policy question for the FAA as to forcing airlines to ground planes even though the violations don’t pose an immediate danger to air safety. Southwest has indicated that swapping out all of the suspect parts could take up to three more months. The FAA in-turn is concerned that allowing Southwest to continue flying these suspect jets could set a precedent for other carriers to seek similar special treatment in the future.

In my view, there are much broader issues at stake here, those related to the operation and maintenance procedures of discount air carriers, as well as the issue of supply chain risk and control.  First, Southwest has been the benchmark for many of today’s discount carriers in obtaining maximum operational use of fleet aircraft.  We have all more than likely experienced the quick, less than 30 minute turnaround of flight landings and departures, as well as the maximum utilization of aircraft during any given 24 hours of flight schedules. The unstated question is whether the emphasis of low cost and cheap airfares that leads to maximum utilization of aircraft use is adequately supported by required and properly scheduled maintenance. There is an excellent exchange of commentary attached to the initial WSJ article that debates the pros and cons of cheap airfares and proper maintenance. One commenter reminds us that two previous FAA inspectors who were overseeing Southwest maintenance standards have since been transferred, alleging that there may have been a  “too comfortable” relationship regarding oversight.

The other issue relates to the contracting of maintenance to a third-party, that, in-turn, may sub-contract that maintenance to another firm. As the latest WSJ article points out, Southwest has had a history of outsourcing maintenance to a U.S. based contractor D-Velco Aviation Services, that in turn, subcontracted work on the affected systems to another company that was not authorized by the FAA to provide the particular parts.  Southwest has suspended D-Velco as a maintenance contractor.

Readers may further recall that there have been other maintenance incidents directly attributed to Southwest.  In March of 2008, 44 of its older jets were grounded to inspect for possible structural damage after it was revealed that the airline chose to keep flying 46 jets that had overdue safety inspections for fuselage damage. At that time, the FAA imposed a record $10.2 million fine on Southwest. An article in the Dallas Morning News in March of 2008 quoted Southwest CEO Gary Kelly on Southwest’s continued commitment to safety, and another Southwest spokesperson pointed to the airline’s ongoing internal investigation of its maintenance operations and compliance with required work.

It is time for both Southwest and the FAA to establish renewed efforts for what is acceptable maintenance and parts control standards for discount air carriers.  The notion and/or perception by the traveling public that discount air carriers can find means to “get-around” required maintenance and inspections in order to maintain schedules needs to be put to rest.  The traveling air passenger needs the assurance that aircraft, no matter how much utilized or how long in service, has had both required maintenance and is safe to continue flying.  Yes, reason should prevail relative to what may be deemed a threat to aircraft safety or air worthiness vs. other maintenance.  Airlines in turn have another reminder that outsourcing of maintenance, for the sake of cost, does not include the outsourcing of responsibility for adhering to required maintenance and parts specifications.  Airlines that choose to practice full conformance with maintenance and safety of aircraft should not be placed at a de-facto cost disadvantage.

We trust that Southwest, as well as other discount air carriers, and the FAA, will hopefully learn again that efficiency must not compromise on required maintenance and adherence to parts specifications. Surely, now is the time to adopt standards that can keep the airline industry solvent but at the same time, safe.

Bob Ferrari