38 Southwest Boeing 737 NGs Could Be Grounded By The FAA

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is contemplating grounding 38 Boeing 737 NG aircraft operated by Southwest Airlines. It seems that the US low-cost carrier could have been operating these aircraft without fully being aware of their safety history, having acquired them from foreign airlines.

Southwest 737 grounding
Southwest is facing more 737 trouble. Photo: Southwest

Gaps in maintenance documentation

According to reporting by Reuters, 88 Boeing 737 NG aircraft were acquired by Southwest Airlines between 2013 and 2017. They had come from a variety of foreign carriers including some from Argentina, Russia and China, with 16 sources thought to be the originating airlines.

Although contractors were used to review the aircrafts’ maintenance records when Southwest purchased them, there were some discrepancies in the reports. An FAA safety inspector discovered these issues in May 2018, and called upon Southwest to implement detailed physical inspections of all 88 aircraft.

Southwest 737 grounding
The aircraft came from 16 different foreign carriers. Photo: Bill Abbott via Flickr

Since then, the airline has reportedly completed ‘nose-to-tail’ inspections of some 41 of the planes. While the airline says that none of the findings suggested any adverse impacts to the safe operation of the aircraft, a memo made public on October 24th suggests there were more serious issues than might have been thought.

Do not meet FAA airworthiness requirements

A memo from H Clayton Foushee, director of the FAA’s Audit and Evaluation Office, was brought to light on the 24th of October. It said that the inspections carried out to date revealed some 30 previously unknown repairs and 42 major repairs. Some of these did not meet the FAA requirements for airworthiness, it said.

The memo went on to say that these findings indicated that the majority of the planes to be inspected did not meet FAA airworthiness requirements.

Southwest 737 grounding
Some of the planes did not meet FAA standards for airworthiness. Photo: Alan Wilson via Flickr

On Monday this week, the US Senate Commerce Committee said that, in a review of the documentation for all 88 aircraft, some 360 major repairs came to light which were not previously known by Southwest. It seems they were missed in the original contractors’ review.

As such, the FAA Is threatening to ground the remaining 38 foreign aircraft until Southwest complete the inspections. The regulator is expressing exasperation at the “slow pace in completing the evaluation of aircraft”

Southwest is expediting inspections

It seems that, given the FAA’s allowance for Southwest to inspect at their own pace, the airline has been operating thousands of flights using aircraft with unknown airworthiness conditions. As such, the airline is putting thousands of passengers at risk, and needs to take immediate action.

In a statement to Reuters, Southwest Airlines said they were planning to speed up inspections,

“We have a plan in place to inspect the 47 remaining aircraft, nine of which are currently in heavy checks, no later than January 31, 2020 – five months earlier than the original FAA accepted completion date of July 1.”

Southwest 737 grounding
Southwest says inspections will be completed by the end of January. Photo: Southwest Airlines

According to Sam Chui, the airline has 50 employees working to evaluate 63,000 repair documents in 15 different languages. The FAA said yesterday that it appreciates Southwest’s response, and that the airline has “met the requirements for immediate inspection and risk assessments on these aircraft.”

However, it also went on to say that it wants more frequent updates on the progress of completing these requirements.

Were Southwest to have these 38 aircraft grounded, it would come as a massive blow to the carrier as it already struggles to meet capacity demands with its fleet of 737 MAX grounded. It recently extended the removal of the type from its schedules to March 2020, making it almost a full year that it has not had the new planes in service.