Southwest, the country’s biggest budget airline — and the most popular carrier in America, period, as of last year — is arguably best known for its free checked bags policy, its cheery staff, and its cheap, no-frills flights. But in recent weeks, the airline has been making headlines for more troubling reasons, raising concerns about the reliability and safety of its flights.
In an internal memo issued to mechanics last week, Southwest proclaimed it was in the midst of an “operational emergency” resulting from an unusually high number of out-of-service planes. The memo, first reported by the Chicago Business Journal, warned that any mechanics who were “alleging illness” to skip work needed to provide a doctor’s note or risk losing their job.
The high rate of out-of-service jets caused 100 flight cancellations and more than 1,000 delays on Friday, February 15, according to the website FlightAware. The issue appears to have been at least partially resolved since then — there were 39 cancellations on Sunday, according to CNBC, and only 19 on Tuesday, per FlightAware.
“To take care of our customers, we are requiring all hands on deck to address maintenance items so that we may promptly return aircraft to service,” Southwest told CNBC in a statement. (The airline did not respond to Vox’s request for comment.) “At the same time, our operational planners have been working in the background to minimize the impact to our Customers.” The airline also told CNBC that there was “no common theme” among the out-of-service planes.
But the operational emergency may be the least of Southwest’s problems. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency tasked with overseeing and regulating airline safety standards, has been investigating Southwest since February 2018. Investigators have reportedly found “systemic and significant mistakes” regarding Southwest employees’ calculations of the weight of luggage loaded onto flights, which it says could lead to potential safety issues during takeoff.
According to the FAA, Southwest regularly underestimates the total weight of luggage carried by its planes. Since pilots have to take weight — meaning not just the total weight on a plane but also how that weight is distributed — into consideration while calculating takeoff speed and thrust, the discrepancy between how much luggage is on the plane and how much luggage pilots think is on the plane could lead to serious problems in emergency situations like engine failure. According to the report, pilots’ misunderstanding of weight distribution could potentially exacerbate engine-related emergencies.
FAA officials told the Journal that at some points during the year-long investigation, at least 33 percent of Southwest’s 4,000-plus daily flights could have operated with inaccurate weight data, a statistic the budget airline contests.
The Journal’s report notes that there haven’t been any Southwest accidents linked to these weight discrepancies, and mid-flight engine failure is remarkably rare. That said, the memory of a 2018 incident that led to a passenger’s death may still be fresh in the airline’s — and potential customers’ — mind.
In April 2018, a flight headed from New York City to Dallas had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia after the plane’s engine exploded. A piece of debris from the engine struck and broke one of the plane’s windows, causing a passenger to get nearly sucked out of the plane. Two other passengers on board were able to pull the woman, Jennifer Riordan, back onto to the plane and perform CPR on her, but Riordan did not survive. And in 2016, the engine on a Southwest plane headed from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida, exploded, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing in Pensacola. No passengers were injured.
It’s unclear what effect, if any, these high-profile incidents will have on Southwest’s reputation. The only thing that is clear is that America’s favorite budget airline has been facing numerous scandals lately.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the relationship between excess weight and engine failure.