If you really want to understand how the Southwest Airlines safety scandal is affecting passengers and employees, there’s only one thing to do. Get on a flight and strike up a conversation with a crewmember. Which is exactly what I did this morning.
The nonstop flight from Albuquerque, N.M., to Orlando took off right on time at 9:05 a.m., and it was completely full. So my first question – “Has anyone canceled their flights because of safety concerns?” – seemed moot. Clearly, no one had called off their plans to fly to Orlando today.
None of the passengers I spoke with had any misgivings about flying today, despite a firestorm of criticism over Southwest’s handling of the inspections.
I asked one of the attendants if the subject come up in interactions with passengers. I’m keeping their names out of this, for obvious reasons.
“Oh yeah,” the attendant said. “We’ve had a lot of cracks about the whole inspection thing. No serious questions. Most of them are just joking around.”
While safety isn’t a joke to Southwest’s employees, the way in which this story has been handled is something of a laughing matter within the company.
“The media has played up the negative aspect of this story,” I was told. “They’re just interested in selling more newspapers. But the fact is, we’re always two or three steps ahead of the FAA, when it comes to spotting safety problems. You don’t see that being reported anywhere, do you?”
Blaming the media for a story (or shooting the messenger, as we like to call it) is a time-honored tradition. But in this case, my Southwest friends might have a point. There are only a handful of airline reporters in the United States with the depth of knowledge and experience to put an event like this into perspective – to be able to separate the political grandstanding from the PR and get to the core issue.
I would even go as far to say that bloggers have covered the Southwest story more responsibly – more timely, with better sense of perspective and more clear-headed insights than my buddies in the mainstream media have. I should note, of course, that some of those bloggers are affiliated with mainstream news outlets, like The Dallas Morning News.
About halfway through writing this blog entry, the crew discovered me (geez, gotta get one of those privacy screens for my laptop). A flight attended slipped me an internal memo (hey Paula and Brandy, go easy on these guys … they’re just trying to help).
This is what Southwest employees are being told about inspection-gate:
We wanted to followup on this morning’s Employee Message concerning the preliminary findings of our own internal investigation and audit of our Maintenance procedures. Gary has vowed to make any changes necessary to ensure that Southwest is in full compliance with FAA Airworthiness Directives and All of our own Maintenance programs, policies, and procedures.
During last night’s review of our maintenance records, we discovered an ambiguity related to required testing. We made the decision to take a conservative approach and remove aircraft out of scheduled service. We immediately began reinspecting those aircraft. A total of 44 aircraft were affected – one was already retired, five were in maintenance for schedules checks, and the remaining 38 were removed from scheduled service.
Our decision to remove aircraft from service resulted in approximately four percent of today’s flight’s being canceled. Due to good weather conditions, the decision caused minimal schedule disruptions, and we are running more than 90 percent ontime.
A portion of the aircraft have been inspected, cleared, and returned to service. We expect to have all these aircraft inspected by early this evening. The ongoing internal review of our maintenance programs, policies, and procedures could potentially create other operational changes if we need to swap or reroute aircraft as the internal investigation and audit unfolds.
“Again, we are mindful that during Southwest’s proud 37-year history, we have safely transported the equivalent of the population of the United States – every man, woman, and child – fur and a half times over. This is a fact. We have bee a safe Company. I believe we are a safe Company. I am committed to making sure we become safer still,” said Gary.
(Gary would be Southwest chief executive, Gary Kelly.)
“If we thought the airline was unsafe,” a crewmember added, “every flight attendant would have called in sick yesterday.”