The Southwest Airlines Crisis

Last Friday, Southwest Flight 812 took off from Phoenix, Arizona, reached 35,000 feet… and depressurized as five feet of the fuselage blew off.  The pilots handled the situation superbly, keeping cool heads and making a rapid controlled descent into an Arizona military base.  The incident resulted in only minor injuries.  Those pilots have not been congratulated enough for their outstanding performance in a harrowing situation.

Southwest promptly began canceling flights and pulling its fleet of Boeing 737-300s out of service for emergency inspections.  So far, cracks in the fuselage that might have led to incidents similar to Flight 812 have been discovered in three other planes.  79 aircraft were pulled off the line over the weekend, resulting in the cancellation of 600 flights, according to an Associated Press report. 

It turns out that the aircraft used for Flight 812 has developed cracks in the fuselage before, leading to repairs a year ago.  Other airlines operate the same model of plane, but so far attention has been focused entirely on Southwest’s fleet.  There has been some speculation that the problems appeared in Southwest planes first because they work their machines harder, flying more short routes with quick turnarounds and takeoffs.  High per-aircraft productivity is an important part of their business model.

Flight 812 used a fifteen-year-old plane, which an NPR report says is “about four years beyond the average age of the airline’s fleet.”  Southwest says it has been in compliance with all maintenance and inspection requirements.  They were, however, fined $7.5 million by the FAA, back in March 2009, for failure to perform mandatory inspections for fuselage cracks.  On the other hand, it is worth noting that Southwest has never experienced a fatal in-flight incident.

Southwest stock has, not surprisingly, taken a hit after the incident.  The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch reported its shares fell 4.7% in pre-market trading.  The flying public will ultimately decide, with a nudge from the character of media reporting, if this was a fuselage half full of air, or half empty.  Will they be impressed by Southwest’s handling of the incident, or alarmed that it occurred at all?