Southwest and FAA repeat an Airworthiness Conflict (2007 and 2015) with different Outcomes

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Southwest New Paint Job

As the infamous New York Yankee manager, Yogi Berra, said “It’s déjà vu all over again.” An old and now a recent allegation of “unairworthy” aircraft resulted in very different rules. Can one discern why?

In 2007, Southwest found that a significant error in its maintenance program led to a number of aircraft being “unairworthy” in the technical meaning of the FAA. What was done next is subject to much debate, but the end result was that the company grounded about 120 of its B-737 fleet. The recent situation also involves the “airworthiness” of its fleet due to a missed inspection. However, this time the FAA gave explicit permission to the carrier to fly pending the hangar examinations of the aircraft at issue.

The FAA instituted a program called the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program in 2006 and is intended to enhance the FAA’s knowledge about and ability to address early problems being experienced by the carriers. There is some controversy about the implementation of the VDRP. Some in industry do not trust the inspectors’ and lawyers’ use of the program’s exceptions to immunity; many FAA people believe that the airlines use it as a get out of jail free ticket.

In 2008 Chairman Oberstar held a hearing, entitled  

“CRITICAL LAPSES IN FAA SAFETY OVERSIGHT OF AIRLINES: ABUSES OF REGULATORY ‘PARTNERSHIP PROGRAMS’”.
The findings of that Congressional investigation were that the FAA’s senior management in Texas refused to listen to the opinions of their inspectors/ whistleblowers.
The Members concluded that the FAA “partnership” programs were being misapplied by the office managers to the benefit of Southwest. 
 
A different version of the same event was that Southwest found the problems alleged and sought to avail themselves of the VDRP. In the best light of
this assessment of what happened, the transmission from Southwest to the FAA manager did not perfectly follow the VDRP process and the FAA approval of the
 Southwest corrective actions was not by the book.
 
The consequence in 2007 was that a substantial percentage of its B-737 fleet was quickly grounded. 
 
The current situation is very similar to the previous circumstances. There is some cloud over Southwest’s meeting of a schedule of inspections and
that error makes those airplanes “unairworthy” in the FAA’s jargon.  

The difference is Southwest has been received permission from the FAA to continue to fly these airplanes.

[FOR SOME STRANGE REASON, WORDPRESS HAS ALTERED THE FORMAT OF THIS PAGE. ]

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