Dozens of Southwest Airlines planes continue to operate even though federal investigators discovered last month that they were using unauthorized parts.
The Federal Aviation Administration ordered the airline to fix the problem and gave Southwest until Tuesday to replace the parts on more than 80 of its jets. The airline filed for and received extension to finish the job and now has until Dec. 24.
In the meantime, both Southwest and the FAA say there is no immediate danger to passengers. A Southwest spokeswoman called the parts “perfectly safe.”
But some passengers are nervous, and critics say it’s a sign the government agency has gotten too cozy with the airlines it is supposed to police.
“They have been allowing airlines to self-evaluate the jets to determine if there’s a problem, and every once in awhile they send an inspector from the FAA to do a surprise evaluation and that’s the only way they’re finding these unauthorized parts on these planes,” said Kate Hanni, a vocal airline critic and advocate of passengers’ rights. “They are eroding the confidence of the flying public if they allow Southwest to pass on this very significant maintenance issue.”
The part in question deflects hot air from the engines away from the wing flaps — the problem was discovered 10 days ago. Southwest says a maintenance vendor it contracted with used a subcontractor that supplied the unauthorized parts and that the airline has since suspended its relationship with the vendor. After a brief grounding, the planes were allowed back in the air. In the interim, Southwest has replaced the parts on 30 of the problem planes.
Customers are not necessarily at ease.
“It’s a little bit scary. You know there are those of us who are already afraid of flying and nervous about all the security that’s involved, so that makes me a little bit nervous to hear that,” one passenger said.
“Southwest has done a pretty good job, I think, over the years of maintaining a great record and running a great business. But at the same time, getting on a plane that flies at 35,000 feet a lot, you really like those things not to be in the back of your minds,” another passenger said.
The latest Southwest setback comes just months after it paid out $7.5 million to settle allegations that it operated nearly 60,000 flights without the required inspections — and just weeks after a hole in the fuselage of one of its jets forced an emergency landing.