What Do You Have to Do to Get Fired?

Southwest Airlines and the saga of AD 2004-07-08

If you have been reading the papers lately you no doubt have come across the flap over Southwest Airlines’ failure to perform a certain Airworthiness Directive related to 46 of its 737 aircraft. It is the one that came out after a single accident in 2001 when a fish hauling-passenger Aloha 737 lost part of the skin from its fuselage and wing due primarily to fatigue and corrosion. The AD also concerned cracks in the wing and fuselage skin structure (AD 2004-07-08 recurrent fatigue and corrosion inspections).

Well, as you know, some politicians suggested that Southwest elected to go slow on the mandated recurring inspections probably because the continuing nature of the AD takes many aircraft out of service and therefore reduces revenue. SWA said that its overflight of the AD inspection requirements was simply inadvertence and they “self-disclosed” (AC 00-58) this to the FAA in early 2007. Overflight simply means that the airline flew an aircraft beyond the time within which to complete the inspections. In this case it was reported that there were 46 aircraft involved. Some FAA inspectors on the scene apparently were aware of this problem before the self-disclosure and informed their superior who apparently did not do anything about it. The fact is that all of the required inspections have been completed and will continue to be completed as the time requirements are scheduled.

When the information got out from a whistle-blower, the company was hit with a Notice of Violation and a proposed fine of $10 million. It was said that it had violated Title 14 Section 39.7 and 121.153a2. …”Round up the usual suspects …”.

AD 2004-18-06
AD 2004-18-06 followed 2002-07-08, the original AD resulting from the Aloha accident in 2001. The later AD provided for further repetitive inspections to find out if there was more fatigue cracking in the upper and lower skin panels of the fuselage, and added further instructions on repairs and other corrective actions as necessary. The inspections also required certain additional eddy current inspections of parts of the fuselage.

In the process of getting the proposed 2004 AD on the books there was good reason to challenge this follow-on AD that came after AD 2002-07-08. There were extensive negative comments to this proposed AD by industry. This later AD provided for recurrent eddy current inspections of the affected parts of certain of the 737s. These inspections are expensive and time-consuming. The objection to this add-on AD was that it required both external detailed and eddy current inspections on a continuing basis. This was beyond what the Boeing company required in its companion service bulletin on the subject. It added additional work time to complete the mandate of the later AD. Needless to say, it also added extensive cost increases to the inspection process, no doubt beyond even what Boeing had anticipated. The requirements were nonetheless included in this airworthiness directive with minor modifications and it remains complex, time-consuming, and expensive to perform.

Criminal action?
So far there are no sanctions against anybody noted in the press. The only FAA action was that the FAA inspectors who complained about the problems early on, were removed from their job or asked to take a transfer. A third FAA inspector was removed from his job supervising at SWA. Wait a minute … is this not a violation with FAA involvement?

Congressman James Oberstar, D-MN, at a recent hearing on the case, said that …”FAA managers’ actions displayed malfeasance bordering on corruption,” and added that, “… if presented to a grand jury, the evidence would result in an indictment.”

Years ago in A&P school I was taught that an AD was Federal Law and that its violation could subject one to criminal prosecution. ADs, we were told, were different than mere FAA regulations. They were a notch above them.

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