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.
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
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
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
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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
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