As Southwest Airlines Deals with Grounded Aircraft, a Look at Three Maintenance Failures and Fallout

Southwest Airlines was still dealing with grounded flights and stranded passengers three days after a hole was torn in the top of a Boeing 737 in flight April 1. As Southwest struggles to once again deal with massive inspections after an incident, what will the fallout be?

Southwest has a loyal customer base that didn’t run away after safety issues were raised in the past.

Southwest was fined $10.2 million by the FAA in 2008 for continuing to fly aircraft the airline had said they grounded until inspections could be performed. The fine was the largest ever issued by the Federal Aviation Administration up to that time. It was later reduced to $7.5 million.

What are some other recent mechanical problems leading to crashes or customer relations nightmares?

Qantas, other airlines ground Airbus A380 after engine fire

The world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380, had barely been in service for three years when an engine exploded on a Qantas flight just after leaving Sydney in November of 2010. It was the second incident involving an A380 engine in three months.

The aircraft did land safely in Singapore with no major injuries. Qantas immediately grounded all A380 aircraft in its fleet, with Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa following suit. Air France and Emirates, a Persian Gulf carrier, kept their A380 fleets flying because they had engines from a different manufacturer.

The manufacturer of the engines that failed, Rolls Royce, saw a rapid plunge in stock price and was forced to go into damage control mode to ensure Airbus and carriers their engines were sound. The incident tarnished the image of the biggest passenger plane ever built.

Alaska Airlines loses Flight 261 to faulty stabilizer/ jackscrew assembly

When Alaska Airlines flight 261 plunged into the Pacific off the coast of California Jan. 31, 2000, all 88 passengers and crew aboard were killed. The cause was later found to be a direct result of faulty maintenance procedures.

As a result, Alaska Airlines, and later American Airlines, grounded MD-80 series aircraft for inspections of the jackscrew assembly and horizontal stabilizer.

Alaska Airlines had a highly loyal customer base, similar to the case with Southwest. Alaska only saw minor service disruptions and little long-term financial damage as a result of the crash.

Japan Airlines Flight 123 loses bulkhead, crashes into mountain

Japan Airlines flight 123 was on a flight from Haneda airport to Osaka Aug. 12, 1985, when it crashed into a mountain, killing 520 of the 524 people on board. Only four passengers seated near the rear survived. It was the worst single-aircraft disaster in aviation history. Only the collision of two 747 aircraft on Tenerife killed more.

The cause was determined to be a faulty bulkhead repair done after an the plane suffered a tail strike in 1978. The substandard repair went unnoticed in subsequent inspections. When the bulkhead gave way, it ripped off most of the tail section of the Boeing 747.

Public confidence in Japan Airlines plummeted, with domestic bookings dropping by one-third the following year. Rumors persisted that Boeing admitted fault for the accident in order to cover-up for JAL, a major buyer.

Without admitting liability, JAL paid out 780 million yen in damages, its president resigned, and a manager committed suicide.

Sources: New York Times,,Aviation,