Evan Smith: The A ustin 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 not saying we shouldn’t have known better, but, anyhow, that was what was done: The little portions of the airplanes were inspected, as is required. The basic point is, there was never any danger. The airplanes are perfectly sound, perfectly solid. It’s a fail-safe design by Boeing. There won’t be any structural damage if you have a crack. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, when your aging airplane first becomes subject to these inspections for cracks, the FAA gives you 4,500 cycles [takeoffs and landings] before you have to start [making repairs]. That’s a year and a half of flying!
ES: If the issue is the FAA’s oversight and not anything Southwest did, why might the company be fined more than $10 million?
HK: I’m on somewhat dangerous ground here, but I said the same thing at the hearing. This turned into a big political issue and that influenced the amount of the fine. I can’t vouch for this, but I did read an article the other day that said the legal department at the FAA originally proposed a $300,000 fine.
ES: Anything else related to safety and Southwest that we in the public need to know?
HK: The other point that I tried to make at the hearing was that Southwest has the best safety record, insofar as passenger fatalities are concerned, of any airline in the world. We’ve operated the most flights, 16 million, and carried the most passengers, 1.2 billion, without a passenger fatality. Knock on wood, that’s the best record ever, and it’s gone on for 37 years. I’m Irish, but I don’t have 37 years of Irish luck.
ES: When the average person sees you testifying before Congress, he thinks, “Didn’t that guy retire?” In fact, until May of this year you were still Southwest’s executive chairman.
HK: We made it very plain when Jim Parker stepped in as CEO in 2001, and we put out a press release at that time that said that I was not retiring, that I was going to continue to handle certain responsibilities for Southwest Airlines. I’ve actually been working full-time, which for me is seven days a week, ever since then. Now, in deference first to Jim and then Gary Kelly, I stopped giving interviews, I stopped talking to the financial community, and I even stopped going to some big company events because I didn’t want anybody to think I was competing with them for attention. I took a much lower public profile. But I never retired.
ES: Congressional testimony is one of those responsibilities?
HK: Governmental affairs is an area I’ve handled on behalf of Southwest Airlines for more than thirty years. I enjoy it. I have a lot of respect for the committee and its members. And I think, if queried, they know me as a very straightforward person who has always told them the good and the bad.
ES: Your candor has been a hallmark of your time at Southwest.
HK: I’ve always said that it’s attributable to my low IQ. I can’t afford to lie