Herb Kelleher

On the FAA, smoking, and deplaning.

Evan Smith: The Austin American-Statesman editorialized that the two FAA inspectors who were whistle-blowers in the safety controversy involving Southwest planes should be celebrated as heroes for putting their careers at risk. Do you agree?

Herb Kelleher: I’ll tell you what, Evan, I really don’t know. I have no personal knowledge of the interaction between our maintenance department, the FAA regional office, and these particular inspectors. I mean, this thing burst on us as kind of a bombshell, and nobody was aware of the fact that there were any issues. It’s hard for me to comment because it involves personal relationships and, apparently, some dysfunction within the FAA.

ES: I went on Southwest’s Web site and saw the blog that the company publishes—

HK: You’ll notice we put all the bad stuff on there.

ES: —and you posted portions of your testimony and [Southwest CEO Gary] Kelly’s before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House, as well as the response to it, which was, indeed, largely negative. Do the people who wrote, in effect, “I’ll never fly Southwest again” understand exactly what happened here?

HK: Well, let me tell you exactly what happened. We have a program for modifying the classic 737’s, to eliminate the possibility of cracks. And we were engaged in that modification program; essentially you’re filling or replacing the skins on the airplane. Now, that’s good, right? And in the course of doing that, you are relieved of a lot of inspection requirements under another airworthiness directive. And they interrelate. You do this mod work, and you don’t have to do the inspection. So a very excellent engineer, in issuing new engineering orders subsequent to the modifications, left out a small portion of the airplane. I’m not trying to minimize it by saying it’s a small portion, but it was about six tenths of one percent of the skin of the airplane, which he thought no longer needed to be inspected because of the modifications that had been made. Okay? Now, these airplanes are inspected eighty times a year. It’s not that the airplanes weren’t inspected.

ES: If you read the newspaper coverage of this story, you might not get that impression.

HK: Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to correct, because we have four times as many regular inspections as are required, and I’m talking about inspections involving the fuselage—I’m not talking about a first officer’s walk-around on the ramp to look at the airplane. So all of these airplanes were thoroughly inspected. And when this came to our attention, we immediately notified the FAA and said, “Hey, wait a second, there’s a small area that we haven’t inspected for the last six or eight months.” And the FAA said, “Fine, we understand. Just get it corrected, do the inspections, and you can keep flying.” That’s where the problem came in.

ES: In the FAA’s reaction.

HK: Yeah. I’m

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