Southwest’s fuselage tear and the lessons Qantas (and Boeing) already learned

QF WN Mosaic.jpgThose following last week’s five-foot-long fuselage tear (bottom right photo) in a Southwest Boeing 737-300, and the implications for regional 737 Classic operators here, may have read the Wall Street Journal’s account of Southwest’s and Boeing’s initial reactions to the incident and how to progress, with the key emphasis on Southwest possibly starting a new standard by preemptively grounding aircraft before regulators come a-knockin’.

But it is a statement that suggests that region is ignorant of this region and has forgotten last November’s QF32 incident.

Those Singapore-Sydney passengers and crew had barely stepped out of Changi customs following their A380′s U-turn when Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce announced the carrier’s flagship fleet was grounded.

Southwest’s fuselage tear is physically different from Qantas’ Rolls-Royce Trent 900 uncontained engine failure, but both were serious incidents with the potential for a fatal outcome. Both had an element of the unknown: Southwest had previous fuselage tears, but this one, Boeing said, was different and unexpected. For Qantas, the Trent 900 uncontained failure was the first in the world and not designed to occur.

Both carrier’s groundings were within hours of each incident and tremendous in their own right. Southwest in consultation with chief executive Gary Kelly (top right photo) grounded 79 small 737s that had been in service for decades compared to Qantas’ five giant A380s in service for only a few years. Southwest canceled 300 flights, but those were shorter in distance than the A380s plying the Kangaroo and Pacific routes. Southwest’s grounding lasted a few days while Qantas’ was for three weeks and then almost another two months before operational restraints were removed, all at a huge financial impact.

Cue a Qantas spokesman: We take a conservative approach to safety.

What is troubling about assertions that Southwest is setting a new trend by preemptively grounding aircraft is that safety boards and regulators are apparently not pushing that level of reckoning. Make of that what you will: safety orders are already cautious (such as the FAA mandating immediate 737 checks on aircraft with 35,000 cycles when the Southwest aircraft had 39,000) or that airlines are counting every cent and popularity poll percentage point more closely than ever and preemptive groundings are not seen as necessary.

Standards differ, and that maxim can be seen locally. Qantas grounded its A380 fleet but Jetstar had long Darwin-Singapore-Darwin pilot rosters. But then Jetstar decided (on its own, the carrier says) to give pilots an overnight rest. But then back-of-the-clock flying out of Perth became an issue.

In short, lessons have been learned but school’s not out.

From a manufacturer perspective, the company at fault in the Southwest incident (Boeing) did much better than the one in QF32 (Rolls-Royce).

Boeing publicly disclosed some jets were prone to cracking earlier than expected, which media were quick to associate with the phrase “exonerating Southwest”, undoubtedly helping the carrier rebound.

Not so for Rolls, who is still silent on QF32. Rolls’ lack of comment forced Joyce and Airbus executive John Leahy to blame Rolls, taking the unusual step of publicly criticizing a partner.

Some argue Rolls had no need to go public since the company does not directly affect the public. But that claim is ignorant of taking responsibility and shielding your innocent customer.

, , ,

Leave a Reply