I love flying Southwest, including the fact that they operate out of Hobby, Houston. The landing route into Houston is just awesome. But what I have always loved the most about Southwest is the bags fly free offer. Paying almost $50 for checked in baggage on a return trip on other airlines is outrageous, however, on Southwest all you have to do, is give the check-in staff gratuity. Never in my childhood would I have imagined giving the check-in staff gratuity, they were supposed to be people who made good money. But the check-in staff is not what this post is about. This post is about the Southwest plane losing part of its roof, and cancellation of almost 700 flights, subsequently followed by the ongoing investigations and the consistent finger pointing.
Critics are quick to question Southwest and their maintenance practices. One can’t help but wonder if that is the correct approach. Out of all products that are known to mankind, Aircrafts and Marine vessels arguably have the longest product development life cycles, and therefore the longest product life cycles. To provide a big picture of the domain consider the following characteristics. The Airbus A380 has 445 suppliers. The Airbus A300 was launched in 1969, entered into service in 1974 with the last aircraft being delivered after 33 years in July 2007. The long production times of aircraft are complemented by long usage times of aircraft and consequently long maintenance periods. For example the A380 has been subjected to fatigue tests covering 25 years of use. A quarter of all Boeing aircraft currently in service have exceeded their minimum design life of 20 years.
The aircraft manufacturing industry has always been a consolidated one, however, over the past three decades there has been further consolidation. There are only two engine manufacturers, and only two craft designers, while the number of operators has been increasing exponentially. There are over a total of 17,000 operating airlines in the world. All of them continuously under the pressure of rising fuel costs, and figuring out ways to cling onto something that is a hint of a profit. Faster turn-around times, increased efficiency and lowered down time at the expense of lesser time in the hangars is one of the main stays of low cost carriers. Air bus and Boeing had not designed these air crafts for over 10 takes offs and landings in a 24 hour period. No amount of maintenance or part modification can sustain this pressure. What obviously is needed is a new product that has the hydraulics and the joints designed to sustain the impact over a dozen times in a 24 hour period. The 15-year-old Southwest jet in Friday’s incident had logged 39,000 pressurization cycles, a measurement of the number of takeoffs and landings. That’s 7.2 cycles every day for every year it has been in service. Planes that have 30,000 cycles or have been in service for 15 years are considered about halfway through their useful life
What that means essentially, the safest way to travel, is no longer the safest way to travel. The increased number of aircraft accidents in the last decade is a critical proof of the hypothesis. Add to the argument the fact that Pilots make meager wages these days compared to the days when Frank Abagnale Jr. walked through the airports feeling proud and privileged and the flight attendants thought they were the shit. That era is long gone, for the moment, I hope the roof stays intact, and it’s just the bags that fall free!