Let's try less sass, safer flying

The Baltimore Sun

As a nervous flier, I wasn't too thrilled to hear Southwest Airlines could be fined a record $10.2 million for failing to inspect planes for cracks in the fuselage.

This isn't the sort of thing that makes nervous fliers feel "free to move about the country," I can tell you that.

In fact, when the story broke a few days ago, I could imagine hundreds of my jittery brothers and sisters who were flying Southwest at the time, opening a newspaper at 30,000 feet and seeing the headline: "AIRLINE FACES PENALTY ON PLANE CRACKS."

Is that going to get you to relax and enjoy the flight?

Me, I'd be wind-milling my arms for the beverage cart and hyperventilating into a paper bag at that point.

I'm no expert on aviation, but isn't inspecting the plane for cracks sort of important?

For, you know, keeping the plane in the air?

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the inspection violations occurred last year and involved 46 planes.

And, naturally, the airline says passengers were never in any danger.

This is what airlines always say when safety issues about their planes are raised.

That landing gear that almost didn't activate?

Passengers were never in any danger.

The cockpit warning lights that lit up like a Christmas tree as the plane taxied down the runway?

Passengers were never in any danger.

You wonder what it would take for an airline to admit passengers were in danger?

A wing shearing off?

A tiger running through the cabin?

In any event, as someone who has flown Southwest, I have a suggestion for its officials.

Maybe instead of all the jokes from the cockpit and all the happy talk from the flight attendants, you could have the crew expend some of that energy checking the plane for cracks from now on.

A few fewer yuks and a few more eyeballs on the fuselage - that would really give us nervous fliers peace of mind.

Here's another thing: You know how you people are always bragging about your on-time departures and arrivals?

Let's not get so hung up on that, OK?

I think I speak for jittery fliers everywhere when I say we'd gladly put up with a short delay while someone walks around the plane and makes sure the tail assembly isn't about to pull away in midflight.

In fact, you people could take all the time you want and we wouldn't complain.

All we want is to hear the captain come on the intercom and, in that semi-Southern drawl they all have, say: "Folks, we just sent Wally, our co-pilot, for another look-see around the plane. And Wally reports we're crack-free. So flight attendants, please prepare for departure."

Southwest, of course, says all this is much ado about nothing and that it did inspect its planes for cracks.

And it says it'll contest the fine, the largest the FAA has handed out.

But then Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest, went on CNN and freaked out nervous fliers all over again.

Discussing the 2007 allegations of improper inspections, he said: "These aircraft are inspected inch by inch. In this particular incident, over 99 percent of the inspections were completed, according to documentation."

Uh, Gary?

We like that inch-by-inch business. That's fine.

But over 99 percent of inspections were completed?!

Wouldn't 100 percent be the figure to shoot for here?

Especially if you happen to be a passenger on planes where the 1 percent of the inspections weren't carried out?

Still, I don't imagine this report about improper inspections is going to hurt Southwest too much.

With its low fares and friendly, efficient flight crews, it'll continue to attract lots of passengers, even wussy fliers like me.

Besides, now that it's facing a $10.2 million fine, I figure Southwest has found religion.

I figure it'll be checking for cracks like nobody's business from now on, with dozens of employees swarming over every plane.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Gary Kelly himself was out there on the tarmac these days doing some inspections.

And remember, Gary: We're shooting for 100 percent here.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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