In the wake of Southwest Airlines’ first-ever fatal airplane accident in April, the low-fare behemoth is suddenly confronting a major federal investigation and a lawsuit that could have serious ramifications as they shine a spotlight on Southwest’s safety and maintenance practices.
On Wednesday, eight passengers who were aboard the fatal Southwest Flight 1380 last April filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of New York.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Southwest (NYSE: LUV) and Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA), which manufactured the Boeing 737 plane. Also named were GE Aviation Systems, Safran USA and CFM International, which all had a hand in manufacturing the engine from which a fan blade detached.
That detached fan blade caused a catastrophic series of events that ultimately resulted in the death of one passenger aboard Flight 1380 when she was partially sucked out of a window in the depressurized plane cabin.
The major concern for Southwest in the lawsuit is the allegation that the carrier “negligently failed to reasonably monitor, inspect, test, service, maintain and repair the aircraft and the engine to keep its aircraft reasonably safe for its passengers and to remove from service aircraft that were not reasonably safe.”
If the suit goes to trial, that issue will undoubtedly be debated in open court, with evidence presented on both sides.
But beyond the lawsuit, Southwest also must contend with an audit of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) safety oversight of Southwest. The United States Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General is just starting the audit. The FAA is an arm of the DOT, which is why the DOT’s Inspector General is doing the audit.
The FAA had this to say today about the DOT’s move: “The FAA’s mission is to enhance safety for the flying public. We welcome the OIG’s examination of the FAA’s oversight of Southwest Airlines. The FAA’s oversight system is designed to identify potential risks before they become serious problems and ensure that corrective action is taken. The process is dynamic, and requires that the FAA, and the airlines we oversee, constantly strive for safety improvements.”
Just weeks before the fatal Flight 1380, Bret Oestreich, the head of Southwest’s own mechanics union, sent a strongly worded letter to management that laid out serious concerns about the maintenance culture at the airline. Southwest management had previously chided Oestreich for using fiery talk about safety concerns as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations that were underway at the time.
Lee Seham, attorney for the Southwest mechanics union, isn’t surprised by the audit actions the DOT is now taking.
Seham, in an interview today, said that as recently as June 13 of this year, he filed a complaint with the FAA on behalf of Southwest mechanics. The complaint alleges that a Southwest mechanics supervisor based at Los Angeles International Airport “assaulted a mechanic” when he refused to install damaged aircraft parts. The supervisor also allegedly threatened to report the mechanic in question for refusing to work. The mechanic, however, ultimately did not install the damaged parts, Seham said.
Finally, it will be up to Southwest to prove to those eight passengers aboard Flight 1380 and to the Department of Transportation that its maintenance procedures are what they need to — and should — be.
Asked to comment on the DOT audit, Southwest had this to say today: “Safety is the uncompromising priority at Southwest Airlines. As part of Southwest’s safety culture, we have a very transparent and professional relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration, which includes an FAA-approved safety management system designed to help us manage and mitigate operational risks and execute safe operating programs and practices. Our absolute goal at Southwest is to meet or exceed every requirement of our safety management system, and we believe we are held accountable to that goal by the FAA. That said, we are always seeking new ways to strengthen our practices, and any additional enhancements or oversights into our safety management system that result from this audit by the DOT are welcome additions to our safety culture.”