What Does the FAA Complaint About Southwest Really Mean?

When political heat builds up on the FAA, the FAA redirects it onto a scapegoat.

Posted Nov 14, 2019

Southwest Airlines has been put in the news by the FAA. The issue cited by the FAA is record-keeping on 88 planes Southwest bought from foreign airlines as far back as 2013.

No airline "buys a pig in a poke." When purchasing a plane, an airline goes over the plane with a fine-tooth comb. If there are problems with a used airliner, thorough inspection allows the purchaser to have the seller bring the plane up to standards at the seller's expense. This means the planes were right before Southwest took delivery of them, and thus were right before Southwest put them into service.

The FAA makes it appear this is a safety issue. Not so. The FAA is not a safety organization. It is a political organization. Its job is not to keep you safe in the air, but to make it appear they are keeping you safe in the air. Flying is safe - not due to the FAA - but due, first to the quality of the planes, and second, to the pilots and mechanics who - because they are unionized - can maintain pressure on the airlines to run a safe operation.

An FAA inspector once told me the FAA is a "paper tiger." The FAA does little inspection of aircraft. Rather, the FAA inspects paperwork: the airline's maintenance records. Unbelievably, the FAA made an issue about certain terms in maintenance records from years ago. How so? Some of the planes had been owned by airlines that kept records in a language other than English. Some terms used in the maintenance records did not fit the FAA's terms.

To resolve the issue, Southwest entered into an agreement with the FAA to reinspect the planes and redo the paperwork by July 1, 2020. According to my calendar, that is months from now. Yet, the FAA saw fit to do a public relations number on Southwest.

Look at the timing. The media has been on the FAA's case about the 737 MAX. When political heat builds up on the FAA, (by the way: nothing wrong with the 737 MAX; just outrageously inadequately trained pilots), the FAA deflects the heat elsewhere. Southwest is the scapegoat this time around.

To fully understand what's going on, let's go back a few more years. I want you to understand how "nitpicking" the FAA is. American Airlines flew MD-80 series planes for years. In all those years, there were no problems with the electrical wiring running through the nose-wheel well. But the FAA thought it would be a good idea for the wires to be protected by a sheath. American Airlines responded and installed a sheath over the wires. Cord was wrapped around the sheath to hold it securely in place. Mechanics know what they are doing. They fastened the loops appropriately, depending upon what was in the way near the sheath.

When the FAA finally got around to it, it wrote regulations that specified how the sheathing should be installed. It specified that the loops of the cord around the sheath be one inch apart. When the FAA, in one of those rare moments, actually looked at a plane, they found that some of the loops were slightly more than one inch apart.

Don't forget that these planes had flown with no sheath for years. Also, remember that American took the initiative and installed sheath on their own. Nevertheless, the FAA did their grandstanding act for the public saying American Airlines mechanics had done sub-standard work and fined American Airlines a hundred-thousand dollars.

Here we go again. This time Southwest is the scapegoat.