Should Southwest’s flights to Hawai’i be delayed? ETOPS and OIG

Southwest Airlines Service to Hawai'iSouthwest Airlines Service to Hawai'i
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Southwest Airlines facing hurdles on Hawaii service front

Union must approve Hawai’i contract

FAA must issue ETOPS certificate

US DOT Inspector is INVOLVED!

Lewis Lazare  – Reporter, Chicago Business Journal, reports:

Two obstacles that could materially affect Kelly’s decision-making remain very much in play. One is the absence of a ratified contract with the carrier’s mechanics after six years of negotiations and a tentative contract that was voted down earlier this year.

The other obstacle is the ongoing investigation by the Inspector General in the United States Department of Transportation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of the safety and maintenance culture at Southwest. The investigation has been going on for months.

Sources familiar with the investigation say the Inspector General (IG) is being more thorough than many expected would be the case. The IG is said to be talking extensively to — and seeking data from — a number of parties involved with all facets of Southwest’s maintenance operations, including third-party vendors who have done a large amount of outsourced maintenance work on Southwest’s fleet of Boeing 737s in recent years.

Though there is no rule that forbids the FAA from granting Southwest permission to fly to Hawaii while an investigation is ongoing, many observers think the FAA would be hesitant to grant that approval without knowing the results of the investigation. Or how damaging to Southwest and/or the FAA the findings might prove.

The Chicago Business Journal report is not alone in pointing out these twin impediments.

 

The union’s stoppage of the inaugural flights to Hawai’i has been publicly acknowledged. The union has been in negotiations with the carriers for six years. The scope clause, however, must be amended as a predicate of flying to the 50th State.

There is a regulatory predicate to Southwest flying more than 180 minutes overwater between the Mainland and points in Hawai’i. Extended Operations (ETOPS) under 14 CFR §121.161. , Appendix P as further explained in AC 120-42B. ETOPS is a certification process designed to assess whether the airline’s operational, navigational, training and maintenance performance are sufficiently exacting to assure the safety of these flights beyond the traditional coverage of airports.

The status of Southwest’s ETOPS proving is not a matter of public record, but it is a subject of numerous news reports:

To fly to Hawaii, Southwest needs what is known as ETOPS authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That authorization allows a carrier to fly long routes where there may not be an airport reachable within 60 minutes from any location on the route.

While the FAA may not have a specific rule that would deny a carrier ETOPS authorization due to contract issues with an airline work group, sources with knowledge of the FAA’s workings say the government agency would likely hold off on granting Southwest the necessary authorization until any contract matters are resolved.

A disgruntled group isn’t the best recipe for safety,” noted one source.

 SWA has been working on this process for 12 months. Regulatory reviews of manuals is completed. Procedures are moving into demonstration phase, starting with “table top exercises,” then the validation flights. That followed by training. Once they get ETOPS, they are ready to go and will within days start sales. They expect to fly within no more than one month of obtaining certification.

Once the airline has completed these flights, the FAA should then give the final sign off to begin flights between the US Mainland and Hawaii. This process of validation flights is currently set to take place in October or November.

 The FAA will not comment on the status of the Southwest request; so the speculative stories are the best approximation of the situation.


Some observations:

  • The economic leverage of the status of union contract is real and must be dealt with by the airline management.
  • ETOPS is a rigorous and comprehensive certification review and though it has a network of flights to the Caribbean and Latin America, the extension of the block time needed to reach Hawai’i is significant. The additional review time is not completely unwarranted.

 

 



 

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