Southwest Airlines Provides Testimony to U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Airline Provides Joint Statement of Southwest Executive Chairman Herb

Kelleher and CEO Gary Kelly Regarding FAA Safety Oversight

MEDIA ADVISORY: The Hearing will be available to view by visiting:

Thursday, April 3 10 AM EDT

To view attachments to the testimony, click here

Apr 03, 2008, 01:00 ET from Southwest Airlines

    WASHINGTON, April 3, 2008 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Southwest Airlines'
 Executive Chairman Herb Kelleher and CEO Gary Kelly will present testimony
 today at a hearing held by the United States House of Representatives
 Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure regarding Federal Aviation
 Administration (FAA) safety oversight.
     Joint Testimony:
     Chairman Oberstar, Ranking Member Mica, Members of the Committee: This
 Committee has raised important issues, both for Southwest and for the
 airline industry in general, and we want to assure you that we are working
 aggressively to address those issues.
     -- Safety is Southwest Airlines' top priority
     Safety is the top priority for both of us. And it is Southwest
 Airlines' top priority. On this, you have our personal commitment on behalf
 of 34,000 Southwest Employees. The need to be safe is part of our history,
 our culture and our Company DNA.
     Being safe is the right thing to do, and it is the law. Airlines are
 held to the highest standard of care when it comes to passenger safety.
 Since our Employees and their loved ones are our most frequent flyers, we
 also have a powerful personal motivation to be vigilant when it comes to
 safety. And, in addition to being a legal, moral, and personal imperative,
 being unsafe would be the worst business strategy any airline could have.
     We are extremely proud of our Employees -- all of whom are owners --
 but none more so than the safety professionals in our Maintenance and
 Engineering Department, some 2,500 members strong. Our maintenance
 Employees are represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association
 (AMFA), and we work closely with AMFA's leadership. Our maintenance work
 force has a record second to none, is the most productive in the industry,
 and these fine people deserve the industry leading pay and benefits they
 receive. They have never suffered a furlough, nor has any other Southwest
     Members of this Committee may have heard from AMFA as well as the
 Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), our pilots' union, attesting
 to their faith in, and their personal commitment to, the safety culture at
 Southwest. We are deeply grateful for their steadfast support and their
 dedication to our mutual effort to improve our Company.
     -- Southwest has an unparalleled safety record
     Over our 37-year history, Southwest has flown over 16 million flights
 and has served almost 1.2 billion Customers -- four and one-half times the
 entire population of the United States. We have transformed commercial
 aviation into a system of affordable transportation for the public at large
 and have done so with an outstanding record of safety. This unparalleled
 safety record has been attained in part through a cooperative partnership
 effort between the airline industry and the FAA. While the closeness of
 that relationship is now under scrutiny, it cannot be denied that the FAA
 and the airlines have worked together to produce a safe and successful
 airborne transit system.
     -- To maintain our outstanding safety record, we must continuously
     Southwest is, and always has been, a leader in developing safety
 programs. An abbreviated and by no means complete list of safety
 initiatives is attached to this testimony. We are also aware that constant
 vigilance and continuous improvement are necessary to maintain our
 excellent safety record. We cannot rest on our laurels. We cannot simply
 rely on what we have done in the past. It is imperative that we
 continuously improve our safety systems.
     While the last month has been a very difficult time for all of us at
 Southwest Airlines, we want to assure you and the flying public that we
 take this matter very seriously and will apply Southwest's strong
 commitment to safety to make all changes necessary to improve our
 Airworthiness Directive ("AD") and regulatory compliance systems and ensure
 that our outstanding safety record continues into the future.
     -- Southwest has vast experience with 737s
     To say the least, the airline industry is challenging. Still, Southwest
 has done quite well. Starting with just three planes flying to three cities
 in 1971, Southwest has grown to be the largest carrier of passengers in the
 world with an all-Boeing fleet of over 500 737s. Southwest was the launch
 Customer for three models of the 737: the -300, -500, and -700. As the
 airline of choice for 100 million people last year, and the largest 737
 operator by far, Southwest has more experience with 737s than any other
 airline in the world.
     Ironically, the very AD at issue in this investigation might not have
 come about had it not been for Southwest's vast experience and expertise
 with the 737. The AD was based on a Boeing Service Bulletin. That Service
 Bulletin, in turn, was based in large part on a pre-existing maintenance
 program developed by Southwest. It was our observations with respect to
 cracking of the "chemically-milled" 737 skin panels on the Classic 737-300
 and the 737-500, coupled with our own rigorous inspection program
 (conducted four times as often as the AD inspections), that were the
 genesis of the Boeing Service Bulletin and the "Chem Mill" AD.
     -- Southwest has invested continuously in its fleet of 737s, both by
     purchasing new aircraft and by making voluntary aircraft improvements
     Through boom and bust cycles in a notoriously tough business, Southwest
 has consistently invested in new airplanes and upgraded our fleet.
 Southwest's large fleet is modern -- on average under 10 years of age.
 Boeing credits Southwest with single-handedly keeping the 737 assembly line
 open on two separate occasions: once during the Gulf War when oil prices
 spiked and a deep recession diminished passenger traffic, and again after
     In addition to purchasing new aircraft, Southwest has invested
 continuously to make sure each of our aircraft operates safely and
 efficiently. On average, each plane receives roughly $1.6 million in
 voluntary improvements and maintenance per year. In 2007 alone, Southwest
 invested $826 million in maintenance materials, repairs and modifications
 for our fleet, which represents a 25 percent increase over 2006.
     Southwest has also made a series of expensive, voluntary improvements
 to our Classic 737-300/500s, including an effort to reduce the occurrence
 of skin cracks. For example, in 2003, Southwest worked with Boeing and the
 FAA to develop a modification program to replace the existing
 chemically-milled window belt skins with new solid skin panels. In 2004,
 Southwest initiated a study to pinpoint areas of the Classic 737 fuselage
 that are most subject to skin cracks. We worked closely with Boeing and the
 FAA to develop a new Service Bulletin, which Southwest uses today to guide
 the replacement of the existing skin panels. The installation of these new
 panels is a permanent repair and eliminates many of the problems identified
 in the six ADs addressing 737 Classic skin cracks. These modifications are
 very expensive and are purely voluntary on the part of Southwest Airlines.
     -- The Boeing 737 Classic Design
     The Boeing 737 Classic was designed with a "fail-safe structure" that
 affords a superb margin of safety. The fuselage design is "fail-safe"
 because there are three independent structural elements: the external skin,
 the internal "bonded doubler," and the aircraft frames and stringers. This
 design allows skin cracks and other skin damage to occur without
 compromising structural integrity. The first three attachments to this
 testimony attest to the level of safety afforded by the current version of
 the 737. The first attachment is a statement from Boeing that confirms,
 based on its review of our fleet's history and test data, as well as other
 inspections and maintenance previously incorporated, that safety of flight
 was never compromised in March 2007. The second is a detailed explanation
 of the 737's fail-safe design from Boeing, which explains why a missed
 inspection, standing alone, would not present a safety of flight risk. The
 third is a statement from Gregory A. Feith, a noted aviation expert and
 former NTSB Investigator-in-Charge, confirming that there was no risk to
 the flying public in March 2007.
     It should be noted that the aircraft involved in the 1988 Aloha
 Airlines incident, a Boeing 737-200 that first entered commercial service
 in 1969, was an early, non-advanced 737 that used production techniques
 that are different from anything found in Southwest's current fleet.
     -- Aircraft Inspections
     It is also important to dispel the misimpression that we did not
 inspect our airplanes for skin cracks. Nothing could be further from the
 truth. On a regularly scheduled basis, we perform an overlapping,
 repetitive, and comprehensive series of inspections of our 737s to detect
 skin cracks, literally inspecting every inch of the aircraft. For example,
 the following inspections are routinely performed:
MV1: Performed overnight on all aircraft that remain overnight at Southwest maintenance stations, at least every four days. A walk-around inspection is performed on all areas, including the fuselage, to ensure safety of flight items. MV2: Performed overnight every seven days. More in-depth than the MV1, including an inspection of fuselage, cabin and servicing items. MV3: Performed overnight every 50 days. A much more comprehensive inspection that includes all MV1 and MV2 inspection requirements plus the lubrication of components. Cabin Visit: Performed overnight every 100 days. An intermediate check, includes interior tasks, fuselage, wing and engine inspections. HC checks: Performed overnight every 250 days. These checks perform intensive fuselage and wing inspections, and also include functional tests of various systems. Y checks: Performed over two to three weeks at a two-year interval. This is a "heavy" inspection of fuselage and wings, including several Systems Tests. In addition to these regularly scheduled inspections, there are also skin inspections required by six different ADs, which encompass over 1100 pages of instructions. The combination of Southwest's regularly scheduled maintenance and AD-mandated inspections make our 737 Classic aircraft one of the most carefully and thoroughly inspected aircraft fleets in the world. The March 2007 events were triggered when Southwest undertook a modification of certain "lap joints" on our aircraft. Once this FAA and Boeing approved modification is performed, it resolves the skin crack issue addressed by the 2004 AD, eliminating the need for more frequent skin inspections in most of the affected areas. The record-keeping error we made with respect to interrelated ADs, was that our inspection paperwork did not include a small portion of the hull that still needed to be inspected under the 2004 AD even after the lap joint modification was performed. Contrary to some suggestions, we did not miss an inspection. We conducted the required inspections. But, we inadvertently omitted a small area (0.6% of the skin surface) that ordinarily should have been specifically inspected under the AD. The "missed" area continued to be inspected by our other regular and routine inspections, as well as by an additional AD that called for crack inspections along a line that ran within 0.7 inches of the short length of the "missed" area. We do not say these things as an excuse for any compliance irregularity, but wish to dispel any perception that we did not inspect our aircraft. -- Regulatory compliance must be taken seriously The analysis supporting the safety of the Boeing 737 should not be construed to suggest that we take regulatory compliance lightly. We continuously monitor our compliance with ADs, and it was pursuant to such an internal audit that we discovered this potential "non-compliance" on our own and took the initiative to inform the FAA. A failure to comply with Federal Aviation Regulations is unacceptable. For that reason, we are taking immediate steps to improve our regulatory compliance systems and auditing. -- The March 2007 events The controversy surrounding Southwest's March 2007 skin crack inspections first came to our attention on February 13, 2008, during discussions of an early February Business Week magazine article entitled, "Airline Safety: A Whistleblower's Tale." Due to the serious allegations asserted, our General Counsel had directed an immediate independent investigation led by outside counsel, which we fully endorsed. That investigation continues to-date. Then on March 5, 2008, Southwest learned, for the first time, that the FAA proposed a civil penalty in connection with these events. -- Whistleblower allegations On March 7, 2008, Chairman Oberstar held a news conference at which he described some of the allegations made by "whistleblowers" within the FAA. This was the first notice we had of any details about the allegations made by the FAA whistleblowers. Obviously, we were concerned about the allegations outlined at this news conference. Our investigation of this matter was ordered to be expedited. On March 10, 2008, we received the preliminary results. -- Two issues needed to be addressed Two issues had to be addressed immediately. The first was that better judgment should have been exercised than to allow those aircraft to fly after the potential non-compliance was discovered. The second was that senior management should have been consulted on such a significant issue, but was not. -- Was flight safety compromised? As always, our first concern was safety, and whether flights were allowed to operate in an unsafe manner. The regulatory compliance issue is a serious one, but, it was critically important to us, Southwest's Employees and our Customers to know whether it was safe to fly. So, we contacted The Boeing Company for its expert opinion, as well as former NTSB Investigator-in-Charge, Gregory A. Feith. Again, those statements are attached hereto for the record. Both confirmed, based on their expert knowledge of the 737 and our comprehensive maintenance program, that "safety was not compromised," and "there was no risk to the flying public in March 2007." Neither expert was asked to address whether we were in compliance with FAA regulations, which remains a separate and important issue. -- SWA took immediate action On March 10, the same day we received a preliminary briefing on our investigation, Southwest took the following actions:
a. Confirmed that senior management will be involved in all decisions of this magnitude b. Reaffirmed to Maintenance and Engineering Department leadership that we will not operate aircraft if there is any credible evidence of AD non-compliance c. Placed on leave the regulatory compliance Employees involved in the March 2007 event Southwest also initiated a number of additional efforts to strengthen our maintenance and engineering, regulatory compliance, and AD compliance functions, including the following:
a. Review of these functions by outside independent experts b. Audit of all open FAA Airworthiness Directives c. Reorganize AD and regulatory compliance functions d. Restructure our Continuing Analysis and Surveillance System e. Increase the number, scope and frequency of audits f. Add more stringent documentation of AD/Maintenance Plan changes When Southwest, the FAA and independent consultants complete their reviews, we will act quickly to evaluate all findings and recommendations, and incorporate all appropriate changes into our existing processes. -- Foreign outsourcing of maintenance work Separately, we have decided not to move forward with plans to conduct certain maintenance operations in El Salvador, which were to begin in June of 2008. On this point, let us be clear. The decision not to outsource maintenance to a licensed facility in El Salvador was not due to a lack of confidence in the vendor, a fine and respected company by the name of Aeroman. Aeroman has a proven track record. Aeroman has demonstrated its capabilities and its professionalism. The decision to alter our plans with respect to Aeroman was made entirely on the basis that given the intense scrutiny being given to our entire maintenance operation, top to bottom, now was not the time to add complexity with significant changes to our maintenance operations. Rather, now is the time to focus strictly on the regulatory compliance of our existing maintenance operations. -- Southwest will improve and not merely rest on its safety record We want to assure Congress that Southwest will not rest on our safety record, no matter how good it may be. We can and we must strive to seek out any weaknesses and improve on them. We commit to you that we will constructively and aggressively react to the issues raised by this Committee in order to keep our proud, safe airline the safest in the world. Our Southwest people and our Customers demand nothing less.

SOURCE Southwest Airlines