Southwest’s Stress Test

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Just took another look at my flight itinerary for Tuesday: yup, I’m booked on a Boeing 737. Great. It’s not on Southwest, so should I take the flight? Is the catastrophic risk higher this week than last week? Will flying ever cease to be an annoying pain in the butt?

Yes. No. I hope so. Southwest’s issue with its 737-300s—a hole in the cabin roof is never a good thing in an aircraft flying above 30,000 feet—also points out one of the one holes in Southwest’s widely admired logistics operation. Southwest operates 737s exclusively, and out of a fleet of 548 planes, 171 of them are 737-300s. Out of that group 79 were pulled from service. In fact, Southwest was the first company to put the 737-300 into service, in 1985.  It was also first to the 737-500 and 737-700 versions. Boeing introduced the 737-100 in 1965 and the jet and subsequent models have been flying since 1968. Around 6,000 have been ordered with the latest iteration, the 737-900 launched in 2005. It is the mule of the industry.

The trouble is that when you are tied to one airplane, if something goes wrong with said airplane your entire fleet could be grounded. Some companies run Boeing or Airbus exclusively, but Southwest has narrowed it to the twin-engine, singled aisle 737. Having one flavor of flight simplifies lots of things:  pilot and crew training, parts inventory, maintenance schedules. It’s the kind of philosophy that lets Southwest maximize its turnaround times and make it operationally superior to lots of competitors. But when the passengers are seeing the sky through the roof of one of your planes you have to question whether every other jet has the same issue. So far, Southwest has cleared 19 737-300s after reinspection, taken 2 for further inspection and as of today canceled 70 out of 3,400 regularly scheduled flights while it completed checking out the remaining 300s.

So the problem looks to be a very narrow one, within a particular subset of a highly reliable jet. I will head to the airport tomorrow morning, knowing the taxi ride will likely be a whole lot more dangerous than the plane ride, although neither is going to be much fun.