Using only 737s added to safety

Airline industry workhorse very familiar to Southwest pilots, maintenance crews

December 10, 2005|By AMEET SACHDEV | AMEET SACHDEV,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

In spite of having its planes in the air longer and taking off and landing off more frequently than its competitors, Southwest Airlines has logged one of the best safety records in the industry - in part by flying and maintaining just one model of plane, the Boeing 737.

The single-aisle jet is the workhorse of the global airline industry and deemed one of the safest models ever made.

While airlines rarely promote their safety records in advertising, the fact that Southwest had not had a fatal accident in its 35-year history until Thursday night - when a Southwest plane skidded off a runway at Chicago's Midway Airport and killed a 6-year-old boy as it crashed into a car on an adjacent street - was a point of pride internally for the Dallas-based carrier.

Southwest is dominant airline at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where Flight 1248 originated.

In 2000, after a Southwest flight skidded off the runway in Burbank, Calif., but did not kill anyone, Chairman Herb Kelleher crowed about the airline's unblemished record of flights without a fatality.

"As safety is defined, our leadership in the world continues," he said then.

Between 2000 and 2004, Southwest recorded an average of 1.69 accidents per million takeoffs, one of the lowest rates among major U.S. carriers, according to the Web site airline safety records.com. The Web site says it uses data from the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Department of Transportation to compile the safety rates.

The NTSB defines an accident as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft in which a person suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives substantial damage.

Southwest officials acknowledge that its safety record has a lot to do with its equipment. The commonality across its fleet of more than 400 planes gives it advantages in training and maintenance. "Our people who work the planes know them backwards and forwards," spokesman Ed Stewart said.

While accidents are a rarity for Southwest, the Midway incident is the second in five years in which one of its planes skidded off a runway and onto a busy street. In 2000, a Southwest flight could not stop on landing in Burbank, crashed through a fence and came to a rest near a gas station across the street from the airport. Forty-three people, including the captain, were injured.

Federal crash investigators determined that the plane descended at too steep an angle and was traveling too fast when it touched down. Southwest fired the pilot and co-pilot involved in the accident, the first major one for the airline at that time.

It's too soon to draw any conclusions about the cause of the Midway crash, as officials with the NTSB have just begun investigating the accident.

Unlike the Burbank accident, weather may have played a critical role in Thursday's incident as the plane landed during a snowstorm.

Nevertheless, the similar accidents raised eyebrows among aviation-safety experts.

"It's possible there's some commonality between this and the other accident," said Grant Brophy, director of flight safety and security programs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. "If there is a problem, they have to figure out what it is."

Southwest officials cautioned against making comparisons between the two crashes. "It's too premature," Stewart, the airline spokesman, said. "To go down that road would be ridiculous."

Ameet Sachdev writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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