The purpose of this paper is to present, discuss, and examine the topic of ethical and social responsibility. It will discuss Southwest Airlines’ failure to comply with the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules on inspecting aircraft and what violations occurred. On March 6, 2008, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors submitted documents to the United States Congress, alleging that Southwest allowed 117 of its aircraft to fly carrying passengers despite the fact that the planes were “not airworthy” according to air safety investigators.
In some cases, the planes were allowed to fly for up to 30 months after the inspection deadlines had passed, rendering them unfit to fly. Records indicate that thousands of passengers were flown on aircraft deemed unsafe by federal standards. Clearly, this is an issue tied to social responsibility and ethics at the highest level, ignoring the safety inspections put people’s lives in jeopardy. This situation actually began in 1988, when an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 suffered an accident that killed a flight attendant.
The top of the plane’s fuselage tore off, opening up a large section of the plane’s roof, killing the flight attendant. The accident occurred because of cracks in the plane’s fuselage. Since then, the FAA has required regular inspections of 737 fuselages to ensure an accident like this does not occur again. In 2007, two FAA inspectors began to question documentation and inspections at Southwest Airlines. They had reason to be concerned, because they felt their concerns were being ignored, and their supervisor was not investigating their complaints.
FAA inspectors Bobby Boutris and Douglas Peters testified before Congress about their experiences, and asked for whistleblower status, meaning they could not be fired from their jobs because of their testimony. Boutris was the first to question records kept by Southwest about airplane inspections. In 2003, he was in charge of inspecting engines for the 737, and he could validate the Southwest’s reports. He told an NPR Radio reporter, “‘I had found a lot of inconsistencies with the records,’ Boutris says. They were different from aircraft to aircraft; it was very hard to determine compliance'” (Goodwyn, 2008). He notes that he complained to his supervisor, Douglas Gawadzinski, but he ignored Boutris’ complaints. In 2006, Boutris took over safety responsibility for the entire 737-700 series aircraft, and when he reviewed Southwest, he found the same recordkeeping problems he had uncovered in 2003. He notified his supervisor and wanted to send a letter of investigation, again his supervisor Gawadzinski refused to acknowledge his concerns.
Boutris believes it is because Gawadzinski had a close friendship with Paul Comeau, a former FAA employee who went to work for Southwest as their manager for regulatory compliance. Anything to do with Southwest and the FAA went through these two men, and Boutris believes they routinely covered up inspection irregularities or lack of inspections. Boutris continued to complain, and Southwest asked for him to be removed from their inspections. Reporter Goodwyn continues, “At first, Gawadzinski refused to remove Boutris.
But it wasn’t long before the supervisory maintenance inspector told Boutris he was out and that his career was in jeopardy because there had been undisclosed complaints from anonymous Southwest officials” (Goodwyn, 2008). At this point, Douglas Peters, another FAA inspector, were brought in to review Boutris’ investigation into Southwest’s compliance. Goodwyn notes, “The more he looked into the matter, the more he agreed with Boutris that the flying public was in danger. Peters says the situation defied logic. ‘That something so critical … would be not addressed … I can’t explain it.
It’s a mystery'” (Goodwyn, 2008). People from Southwest began to contact Gawadzinski directly, instead of going through Peters. Another reporter states, “The whistle-blowers complained repeatedly in memos written in 2007 that their concerns about Southwest were not being taken seriously. The underlying safety concern — the airline was unable to keep up with mandatory inspections — had been raised as early as 2003, one charged” (Levin, 2008). Finally, in March 2007, Southwest admitted to flying 47 737s without completing the problem fuselage inspections, which triggered a Congressional investigation.
Even more disturbing, the airline continued to fly the planes even after disclosing they had not been inspected – it took almost a week to ground the planes. The two men testified before Congress in April 2008, and the FAA fined Southwest $10. 2 million for the blunders. Reporter Levin continues, “Last month, nearly a year after the initial problems were discovered, the FAA levied a $10. 2 million fine against Southwest. The vast majority of the fine was imposed because Southwest had certified that it stopped flying the planes as soon as it learned of the missed inspections, FAA officials said” (Levin, 2008).
These are the basic facts and timeline of the case. The major overriding issue in this case is that the FAA and Southwest conspired to cover up inspection information, and they did so at passengers and crewmembers expense. The inspections were mandated because the FAA knew this particular plane had critical safety issues. By not inspecting planes and allowing them to continue flying, they were putting everyone on those planes in jeopardy, and they knew it. That is perhaps the biggest ethical concern of this case, that the company knew they had not completed checks, but continued to fly the planes anyway.
One of the whistleblowers was told they did not ground the planes because it would “disrupt” Southwest’s service and flight schedule (Goodwyn, 2008). Every airline has a social responsibility to keep their passengers and crews as safe as possible. Flying is a relatively safe form of travel, however accidents do occur. Maintaining high maintenance and safety standards is simply the right thing to do in the transportation industry; it is the ethical, moral, and socially responsible choice. For an airline to lower those standards, especially because of worries about disruption of service, is simply incomprehensible.
For example, the entire airline would be in jeopardy if one of the planes had crashed, and it was found to have been because of a crack that was not detected because of a missed inspection. Indeed, inspections on the aircraft did turn up cracks in some of the planes in question, cracks that had to be repaired before the airplanes took flight again (Wilber, 2008). Thus, Southwest put people in danger, and that is a major ethical violation that has not thoroughly been addressed in the media or by the airline itself.
In addition, the FAA was compliant in this ethical transgression, because they allowed it to happen, calling into question the integrity of the organization that is supposed to be primarily concerned with airline safety and maintenance. If the agency doing the oversight is questionable, it brings the entire system into question. This issue should be studied further because it raises so many moral and ethical questions, and it should be studied because it seems, since there seem to be no lasting ramifications for the FAA, that it could happen again, which is even more disturbing.
The stakeholders in this case are the people who fly on Southwest Airlines. Southwest damaged their reputation by letting down their stakeholders, and that is extremely disturbing. They put passenger safety in jeopardy over worries about income and disrupted flights, when their first concern should have been safety and only safety. This calls into question the entire integrity of the company. This is more than just the classical interpretation of right and wrong, it is a moral dilemma that should have had an extremely simple solution.
Ground the planes, inspect them as quickly as possible, and get them back in the air. The fact that there was any other solution seen to the problem indicates just how unethical and morally irresponsible Southwest was, and the stakeholders should demand compensation for the threat this decision made to their safety. Southwest simply got lucky that one of the affected planes did not develop more serious issues, and the $10. 2 million dollar fine seems quite low in retrospect, considering the damage that could have occurred to people and property had a plane crashed.
The economic responsibility of this situation is clear; Southwest had to pay a large fine and ground the planes, losing revenue anyway. Their reputation suffered, although it did not seem to make a dent in their passenger. Most people did not even seem to care that Southwest had endangered them and only a few spoke out in blogs or in other areas when the news broke. Southwest has a serious responsibility to keep its passengers and crews safe, and they lost the trust of at least some people because of their callous disregard for safety.
That is a huge moral responsibility, and Southwest has never really acknowledged their failure, which is an even larger ethical concern, it seems. In a statement before Congress, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said, “Our compliance with certain specific Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) airworthiness directives has been called into question. We have committed to a thorough review and to make any changes necessary to ensure that we are in full compliance with FAA airworthiness directives and our own maintenance programs, policies, and procedures” (Kelly, 2008).
However, in previous testimony before Congress, Kelly and Southwest Executive Chairman Herb Kelleher both maintained that Southwest did comply with all FAA requirements, and the safety of passengers was never in question (Kelly, 2008). Thus, Southwest maintains they complied with all FAA regulations and did inspect the aircraft, only under a different maintenance directive than the one the two whistleblowers charged had not been done. It seems like a technicality, and that Southwest is not taking true moral or ethical responsibility for the incidents.
They also stated that they did not think they would be fined for the maintenance issues, and it seems as if in their testimony, they were attempting to lay groundwork to fight a fine. However, they did eventually back down and stop contesting the fine, probably because they felt they looked bad enough already. Some recommendations for this case have already been completed. The FAA inspector, Gawadzinski, was transferred to another division, without contact with Southwest.
Southwest placed several maintenance and safety personnel on leave, and developed new maintenance and safety guidelines. The two top executives maintain they did not know about the 2007 maintenance charges until March 2008, and as soon as they learned of them, they implemented stronger maintenance and communication directives so they would be notified and aware of any problems. These would have been at least some of the recommendations made in this case.
Another would be for Southwest to undergo a major campaign to gain back the public’s trust, as many people would seem to have trust issues in flying on Southwest planes. This would include a media campaign that would address trust issues, and perhaps even a campaign including top executives flying on their own planes. This would not be too costly or difficult to administer, and it would let people know that the company is actually sorry about its actions and is going to be more responsible in the future.
It also seems as if the company should apologize to their stakeholders and their crewmembers, not in front of Congress, but in front of them, and with humility. Frankly, their testimony and apology to Congress sounded defensive and insincere, and a true measure of humility might be to offer anyone who flew on those planes some type of compensation or personal apology to make the situation even a little bit more palatable. Of course, that would entail a large expense, but it would make their intentions a bit more acceptable.
Finally, they have to be open and above board with their maintenance issues and they have to make quite certain there is nothing questionable about any of their practices. Their maintenance and safety department must be impeccable, and it must always be open to scrutiny not only by the FAA, but by the public, as well. They owe that, at the very least, to the people that choose to fly on Southwest Airlines. In conclusion, this case indicates how deeply ethical issues can affect a business. Allowing planes to fly uninspected is a terrible disservice to the passengers and crews of this airline.
It indicates a deep-seated lack of respect for the public, the employees, and the agency created to maintain air travel safety. It also indicates an arrogance that the company can flaunt the system and win. Southwest Airlines has deeper issues than maintenance and safety. It has to take a strong look at its ethics and principles, and alter them to create a more socially responsible organization that respects and values the people it serves. Without a change, the organization will certainly suffer more ethical violations in the future.