The emergency landing of a Southwest flight prompts new questions about airline safety. The FAA calls for changes in the way aging aircraft are maintained and checked worldwide. Diane and guests discuss the risks of air travel today.

Guests

  • Mary Schiavo an aviation attorney and the former Inspector General for the US Department of Transportation.
  • Ashley Halsey III transportation reporter for the Washington Post
  • Lee Collins Executive Vice President, Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations
  • Steven Wallace an Aviation Safety Consultant and Charter Pilot and former director of the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Accident Investigation.

Related Video

In “Flying Cheaper,” which aired on most PBS stations this past January, correspondent Miles O’Brien investigated the outsourcing of major airline repair work to lower-cost independent operations. In this clip, O’Brien examines allegations of illegal airline parts being used to service planes of major carriers:

Transcript

  • 10:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The emergency landing of a Southwest flight on Friday has raised new concerns about airline safety. The FAA has since called for changes in the way some aging aircraft are maintained and checked worldwide. Joining me to talk about the risks of air travel today, Lee Collins of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association, Ashley Halsey of The Washington Post and Steven Wallace, former director of the FAA Office of Accident Investigation. Joining us from a studio in Charleston, S.C., Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney who formerly worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

  • 10:07:58

    MS. DIANE REHMI know many of you have been reading and hearing about close encounters and concerns about airline traffic safety, so we'll be taking your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Good morning to all of you.

  • 10:08:28

    MR. STEVEN WALLACEGood morning.

  • 10:08:29

    MR. LEE COLLINSGood morning.

  • 10:08:30

    MR. ASHLEY HALSEY IIIGood morning.

  • 10:08:30

    MS. MARY SCHIAVOGood morning.

  • 10:08:31

    REHMNice to hear your voice, Mary Schiavo.

  • 10:08:36

    SCHIAVOThank you.

  • 10:08:36

    REHMAshley Halsey, describe the incident that happened on Friday.

  • 10:08:44

    IIIA Southwest Airlines' plane was flying, I believe, at 34,400 feet when a seam in the cabin -- it's been described to me as, if you were a passenger looking up and saw the overhead luggage compartment right next to that compartment, a seam opened up about 5 feet long and 1 foot wide. It's been described as a seam where there was an overlap and a row of rivets. The overlapped intended to create redundancy. The plane made a controlled descent to -- I believe, it was 11,000 feet, where oxygen is no longer necessary from the oxygen masks, and then it made a landing at an air base in Arizona, and everyone was fine. There were no problems with the landing.

  • 10:09:46

    REHMLee Collins, help me to understand with this opening, how come people weren't sucked out?

  • 10:09:58

    COLLINSGenerally, the size of the opening would have been the determining factor. It was not a very wide opening. And, I think, it was some 5 feet long in length. But the explosive decompression would have been almost instantaneous and that the cabin would have equalized and that the oxygen masks would have been deployed soon, put the passengers on the oxygen and then -- as Ashley had alluded to earlier -- the crew would be in the middle of making a very quick and orderly descent down to an altitude where pressurization could equalize and that danger was no longer apparent.

  • 10:10:30

    REHMWas this kind of damage a surprise to you?

  • 10:10:35

    COLLINSIn some ways, yes, because you don't expect that very often from our aircraft fleet. They are so well-maintained and so well-inspected for the most part. But we also know that there's always the risk as aircraft get older. The more cycles an aircraft has put on it, the more times it takes off and lands, the more times that aircraft is pressurized and depressurized, it certainly stresses the metal that the aircraft are constructed out of. And so, while it is surprising that you don't expect it to happen, when it does, you understand that there is the reality that it could.

  • 10:11:08

    REHMMary Schiavo, do you think that this incident was specific to Southwest? Or are there lots of other planes out there who are running the same kind of risk?

  • 10:11:24

    SCHIAVOWell, there are lots of other planes out there that are running the same kind of risk, and this has happened before. What's disturbing of that it happened to Southwest is that it's the second time it happened to Southwest in two years. And given the very large fine that Southwest paid after the last hole that it suffered in the -- in one of the fuselages and given that Congress actually had hearings about what was going on with Southwest and Southwest maintenance, it was disturbing particularly that it was Southwest. But given their -- you know, their hallmark 20-minute turn and the number of flights they get out of each aircraft today, between six and eight, it is really at the top of the utilization scale in the industry.

  • 10:12:06

    SCHIAVOSo it was surprising that it was Southwest, but there are many planes out there that could suffer this. And it was surprising it was Southwest only because they had one two years ago.

  • 10:12:16

    REHMAnd, Steve Wallace, given that they had had one incident like this two years ago, why wasn't this part of their routine inspection?

  • 10:12:30

    WALLACEWell, they -- these airplanes clearly had all the required inspections done because they did have some legal difficulties and enforcement actions a couple of years ago involving compliance with their -- with these directives. So the inspections were all done on this airplane. But I will say this is a failure that the communities have collectively -- did not exactly anticipate. The airplane is designed so that, if there is a structural failure, it will -- it'll turn a corner at some point and vent harmlessly. Of course, the big wake-up call in this issue was a low -- high..

  • 10:13:01

    REHMWhat do you mean, vent harmlessly?

  • 10:13:03

    WALLACEThat if there's a tear along a lap joint or a rivet line, that it'll come to a point where it'll make a 90-degree turn and the skin will actually open up, and it will vent. And the plane will depressurize, but you wouldn't expect to have a hole the size of one that was described accurately by Ashley earlier. So this was a far worse tear. The industry continues -- the community continues to learn. We just -- the FAA, yesterday, mandated further inspections on these airplanes. And there are about, I think, 180 of these older model 737s in the fleet.

  • 10:13:42

    REHMOlder model 737. So what does that mean, Ashley, many, many more inspections than have previously taken place?

  • 10:13:55

    IIICertainly so. I think that -- I think, I believe, that this particular aircraft, the 737, was started in 1968, and it is the workhorse of the domestic air carrier fleet. There are more than 1,200 of them in service by U.S. carriers. And I think with all aircraft and with virtually everything, things break. And so it's important to continue these inspections. I think the FAA has reacted very swiftly with its inspection order, and I think that they're going to continue in conjunction with the NTSB in looking at aircraft and determining whether, as Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB said the other day, whether we need to reexamine how the frequency with which these inspections are conducted.

  • 10:14:51

    REHMOkay.

  • 10:14:51

    WALLACEMay I add?

  • 10:14:52

    REHMSure. Go ahead, Steve.

  • 10:14:53

    WALLACEMary made a good point earlier about the cycles. It's -- really is a matter of cycles, the wear on the fuselages up and down. The worst case was Aloha, 20-minute cycles in a corrosive salt air environment. This airplane that had the failure had cycle in times -- it made it looked like its average cycle was slightly over an hour, but still the cycles are very much -- that's the pressurization cycle, as Robert Sumwalt described the other day. If you bend a paper clip back and forth enough times, it breaks. If you flex this airplane up and down -- so the directive the FAA put out has three thresholds. Basically, those airplanes that are under 30,000 cycles -- that's pressurization cycles -- don't need to be inspected, and then 30 -- there's thresholds depending on how high the cycles.

  • 10:15:37

    REHMBut, Mary Schiavo, doesn't it depend on the frequency with which these planes take off and land? As everybody here has said, these are the workhorses. They're doing a lot of takeoff and landing. Does that put additional pressure on them? And then how do you correct that?

  • 10:16:02

    SCHIAVOWell, it does. And it's the takeoff and landing, and then once they do take off and they pressurize the plane, it's -- I like to liken it to blowing up a balloon. You stretch it back and forth, and you can blow up a balloon several times before it will break. And when I was a professor of aviation at Ohio State, there was a very interesting project going on -- and kudos to the FAA, I think they supported that project -- but we actually -- or they actually cut apart an old -- in that case, it was a 727 -- to see what happens to a plane after so many years of pressurizations, many, many cycles and years in the fleet.

  • 10:16:36

    SCHIAVOAnd what they found, for example, in relating to this case, was the rivet and the screw holes, for example, over the years, they were no longer round. They had become elliptical from the stresses. And so if you can imagine even just the rivet holes or the screw holes have been stretched, the whole plane gets stretched, which is why some planes are simply too old to fly. And that's -- the industry has the term tired iron, and they get put out to pasture. And so I think the FAA is going to have to address that as well. At some point, do we need a sundown on the years of service, or rather the number of cycles, takeoffs and landings and pressurizations that a plane can have? And certainly the studies have shown maybe that's an order for commercial service.

  • 10:17:16

    REHMDo you think it's time to replace these planes, Steve?

  • 10:17:20

    WALLACEThe FAA, just last November, put out a rule on widespread fatigue damage to address just the point that Mary is making. And so it requires that all manufacturers of new planes and the existing planes -- all large airplanes over 75,000 pounds -- that manufacturers set life cycle limits. And they're not actually hard limits. They are limits after which, if you want to go further, you must get a special inspection program approved. Planes are, in fact, you know, most often put out to pasture for reasons of economics. They -- they're just no longer economically viable as the technology advances.

  • 10:17:58

    REHMBut how do you fix these planes, Lee Collins?

  • 10:18:03

    COLLINSWell, in fixing the aircraft, I mean, it all depends on your inspection program and what your inspections turn up. I mean, metal fatigue is something that is problematic in so many ways that, I think, developing new structures and new composite materials, new ways of building airplanes would certainly enhance them for the future. But taking older technology aircrafts and actually fixing them many times, like they mentioned before -- tired iron gets turned out to pasture, and we move on to something new.

  • 10:18:30

    REHMLee Collins, he is executive vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association. Do join us, 800-433-8850. We'll take your calls after a short break. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:03

    REHMAnd "The Diane Rehm Show" has a photograph of the Southwest plane on our website. Go to drshow.org. It shows that there is a tear above where normally you'd be sitting in -- near where the luggage compartment is. But there's also -- there also appears to be damage beneath the windows as well. Now, what can you tell us about that, Ashley?

  • 10:20:42

    IIII am not familiar with the damage beneath the windows. Perhaps Steve has a better handle on that.

  • 10:20:52

    WALLACEWell, that's just a lining. I'm not -- I can't come to any conclusion about that.

  • 10:20:56

    REHMWell, it sure looks like damage to me. I don't know if you've seen this photograph, Mary.

  • 10:21:02

    WALLACEThis entire panel may have just flexed as a result of -- I'll hand it to Lee -- as a result of the decompression. There may have been a flexing there, so it looks like it has a surface...

  • 10:21:09

    COLLINSMm hmm. Absolutely.

  • 10:21:10

    WALLACE...tear there below the window line. That would be my guess.

  • 10:21:12

    REHMNot too comforting. Go ahead, Mary.

  • 10:21:16

    SCHIAVOWell, and also when they went back after this happened again -- and, in some degrees, even before -- they had found not just cracking in one place. What they had found on the planes is that there were other cracks on the aircraft, which was particularly alarming to the FAA and hopefully to Boeing and certainly Southwest. And so, as Steven said, when the plane opened up and when it had this rapid decompression, it would have put stress on all the other cracks...

  • 10:21:43

    REHMI see.

  • 10:21:43

    SCHIAVO...on the plane...

  • 10:21:44

    REHMI see.

  • 10:21:45

    SCHIAVO...and could very well have pulled it there.

  • 10:21:46

    REHMAshley, how many planes were taken out of service by Southwest, how many put back in?

  • 10:21:55

    IIII believe that they found cracks on five or six and took them out of service and returned the rest of their fleet.

  • 10:22:05

    REHMWhat's the rest? How many?

  • 10:22:07

    IIIDo they have 80 planes?

  • 10:22:10

    REHMSo 80 of the same manufacture.

  • 10:22:15

    IIIThey have, if I recall correctly, 580 or -90 aircraft, all of them 737s. But there are generations, beginning in the 1968 era. I don't believe they're any of those. But from 1968 until the current time, the aircraft is still produced. What -- the aircrafts affected are called the Classic Series 300, 400 and 500 designations.

  • 10:22:42

    REHMAnd so how many of those are still in service?

  • 10:22:48

    WALLACEIn the U.S., I think, 188.

  • 10:22:49

    IIIYeah.

  • 10:22:49

    REHMOne hundred eighty-eight, and those are the ones that are being used on a regular basis. One of our listeners says, "Where is the heavy maintenance done? How could they have missed such a problem? If the maintenance is done outside the U.S., what kind of oversight do they have at these stations?" Lee Collins.

  • 10:23:19

    COLLINSAn issue that has been discussed now for recent years has been the outsourcing of maintenance to foreign repair stations -- in this case, El Salvador being one, Nicaragua being another. I know both the FAA and Congress recently have looked at the wisdom of how we do that and how we oversee those operations. There has been criticism by U.S. groups that would have traditionally done that work, that the work is not of the quality or the specific level of intensity that they would like to see.

  • 10:23:48

    REHMAnd why is it being done outside the U.S.?

  • 10:23:52

    COLLINSIt's cheaper labor. It's cheaper. It's more cost-effective from management's point of view. But we've yet to see whether or not it's proven out over time from a safety standpoint. One of the first calls that we heard after this went on over the weekend was that we needed to go back and look at and reevaluate these programs overseas and FAA oversight of those programs, and whether or not they are meeting the standard that we expect.

  • 10:24:15

    REHMAshley.

  • 10:24:17

    IIIThat certainly has been an issue and will continue to be one. My recollection is that Mr. Sumwalt said that this particular plane had been inspected in Dallas.

  • 10:24:29

    REHMInspected, but perhaps repaired earlier elsewhere?

  • 10:24:35

    IIII wasn't aware -- I'm not aware of any earlier repairs on this plane...

  • 10:24:38

    REHMOkay.

  • 10:24:39

    III...although I can't rule them out.

  • 10:24:40

    REHMSteve Wallace.

  • 10:24:41

    WALLACEWell, the issue of overseas repair stations, which are regulated by the FAA -- and sometimes there are treaties with the host government where there can be -- if the government is highly capable. You know, if you go to Lufthansa technique or some of these very first-rate stations, the track record is actually very good. Obviously, it's very much a contentious labor and economic issue, but the track record in terms of -- there's never been an accident attributed to an improper repair by a foreign repair station.

  • 10:25:10

    REHMMary Schiavo.

  • 10:25:11

    SCHIAVOWell, actually, there has been. But the problem -- and it's not -- I can't say that it's related to this plane. But when I was inspector general in -- both while I was there and then after, my office did a lot of investigations. And what we found on the problem on foreign repair stations is the FAA, and, you know -- and God bless them -- they're shorthanded. I would like to see the numbers of FAA inspectors increase. But what happens is they make the initial inspection, and then a foreign repair station may never again see the FAA, not because the FAA doesn't care, but because they cannot cover the Earth.

  • 10:25:45

    SCHIAVOThey're not Sherwin-Williams. And so what happens is they'll make this initial inspection. It's an announced inspection. They will get their certificate. And then they will never get back, or they won't get back for years. And what we found when we investigated it, there's workforces that could not speak English. And the manuals -- including on air bus, I might add -- are in English. We found that they would rely on the supervisor signing off, but the supervisors wouldn't be present for any of the work. And while places like Lufthansa might be terrific -- and, in fact, that was one of the places that had been looked at. And they did great work, and they had unique situations.

  • 10:26:20

    SCHIAVOThey had great computer systems where you could enter the work done in any language, like, you know, German or French or whatever, and then it would convert into English. There was this forced conversion, so you'd have excellent records. That was few and far between. So there's a huge unknown with repair -- foreign repair stations. And that's the whole idea of FAA inspections, is to take the unknown out of aviation. So that's still a big question.

  • 10:26:45

    REHMBut if you don't have enough FAA inspectors, as you said, to travel the world, how can we possibly know that the work is being done correctly?

  • 10:26:59

    SCHIAVOWe don't, and that's what concerns me greatly. And that's why I think that we shouldn't be in such a rush to say, oh, it's okay to send things overseas. Many cases, we had -- when I was inspector general -- it would be a very savvy U.S. mechanic. One in particular, I remember, who was at the United repair facility in San Francisco, just by looking at the part, he realized that it was a counterfeit bogus part. He spotted it, and he helped us uncover a huge undercover market in bogus parts and probably saved countless lives. And it was only because he worked in the industry for 25 years. He was a great fellow. And we are losing that experience.

  • 10:27:36

    REHMAshley.

  • 10:27:37

    IIII think that the issue of offshore inspections is one that Congress -- certainly, it has looked at before. And I think in the context of this recent incident, we can expect that there will be congressional oversight of it once again. With all the bipartisan bickering on Capitol Hill, there is no one who is opposed to the ultimate steps necessary for air safety, and I think we can count on Congress in this regard.

  • 10:28:02

    REHMSo to what extent are planes like these retired? The skin is put back on this plane, or others like it, to get it back up into the air. But is it just going to happen again, Steve?

  • 10:28:23

    WALLACEWell, the airplanes, again, are retired for economic reasons. I mean, you can replace any part of an airplane. You can rebuild any part of an airplane. So with proper maintenance, a plane can fly forever. But, normally, what happens is, you know, fuel costs go up, and it's a fiercely competitive business. There's a continual push for more efficient airplanes, and that really drives their retirement.

  • 10:28:51

    REHMYou know, as a passenger, as someone who has to fly fairly often, what you are saying about these planes going back into service after inspection doesn't give me a great deal of confidence. How much do you fly, Ashley?

  • 10:29:15

    IIII fly a great deal. I fly Southwest whenever I can, and I will continue to do so. I've written a great deal in the last year or so about air safety. And in every story that I write, I try to include the fact that we have had a very long period of time elapse since the last serious accident. When it comes to air safety, though, it's very similar to terrorism. The security apparatus can be right 99 percent of the time. We can catch the terrorist, and the terrorist gets through once.

  • 10:29:51

    WALLACEIf I may...

  • 10:29:51

    IIISo the same issue applies to flying.

  • 10:29:53

    REHMGo ahead, Steve.

  • 10:29:54

    WALLACEJust -- I think we -- somewhere in this discussion, we need to just capture the safety record of commercial aviation. I'll do it in a sentence here. After World War II, we just sort of take that as a starting point of modern commercial aviation. The FAA now measures fatalities per hundred million people carried. That number in 1946 was 1,400 per 100 million carried. We lost 14. In the mid-'50s, we lost about 500 per 100 million. In the mid-'90s, we lost about 50 per 100 million. In the last five years, we're down to losing about two passengers per 100 million carried. So, overall, it's tremendous success story. That doesn't mean that this wasn't a very troubling event -- and there's more to learn -- but the safety record is what it is.

  • 10:30:43

    REHMLee.

  • 10:30:43

    COLLINSIf I can add one thing -- and I certainly do agree with what Steve has said -- we have a very admirable safety record here. The administrator of the FAA and others are doing an amazing amount of work with very limited resources in some instances. But one aspect of our aviation safety system in this country, that's been endemic since the beginning of time, has been that we are always reactive in our safety measures. We wait until something bad has happened, and then we try to be prescriptive in keeping it from happen again.

  • 10:31:12

    COLLINSPeople in the industry who try to point out towards the horizon and talk about this could be a possible problem, this could be something we need to look at, generally don't get the audience they deserve because our regulators and others will say, well, has anyone been killed yet? And it's that, yet, that bothers me. We need to be in front of safety issues and not reactive.

  • 10:31:32

    REHMMary.

  • 10:31:34

    SCHIAVOWell, that's absolutely right. And everyone on this program can probably tell you -- I mean, I'll list the ones that I think are -- that are the problems on the horizon. We know they're the problems, but we don't have the will of the industry to respond. For example, the FAA is now looking at the regional operators after the horrific accident in Buffalo and the lifestyles that young pilots are forced to live as they move up to the system in their $16,000 a year wages.

  • 10:32:01

    SCHIAVOMy students, after we graduate them from Ohio State into the regional industry, by the way, would be eligible for food stamps if they had a family. That's one problem. Another problem are the responsibilities of private operators. There's a huge concern when the new air traffic control system finally goes online, and it's going to be wonderful. It actually has a potential of making midair collisions impossible, and that's such a wonderful thing to have.

  • 10:32:24

    SCHIAVOBut we will have tens of thousands of aircraft flying in the system without the required equipment to be seen. That's another problem. No one will step up and say, you know, we're going to require all aircraft to have that system. And, finally, we -- you know, we look at something that we know is a problem but we don't address, called loophole carriers, where people literally borrow other people's -- what's called part 135 certificates, and they fly kind of sketched commercial operations and those kinds of planes that go down all the time. We all know it's a problem, but we won't do anything until there's a catastrophe. So there's much more out there than just commercial operators (unintelligible).

  • 10:32:59

    REHMMary Schiavo, she is former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers. Going to open the phones and take your calls, 800-433-8850. First to Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning, Abby. You're on the air.

  • 10:33:29

    ABBYThe same day that I heard a piece about Southwest's safety concerns, there was another unrelated piece saying that Southwest had the best customer satisfaction surveys in terms of airlines that are canceling and combining flights and things like that. And I thought, is the only way the industry can be profitable either to put people at risk or treat them badly? And then how is that an economically sustainable industry? And then we also know that airline travel is really, really high carbon footprint. So I just think, why are we questioning the sustainability of high-speed rail? We need to be moving away from airline travel, I think, as much as possible. And I'll take my answer offline.

  • 10:34:13

    REHMSteve Wallace.

  • 10:34:17

    WALLACEWell, the -- I made lots of op-ed pieces about the economics of high-speed rail, and it's really rather difficult in this country. We are very scattered. It works better in Europe. And you saw some states decline...

  • 10:34:28

    REHMWorks better in Europe because we don't have it.

  • 10:34:32

    WALLACEWe saw some states actually decline to take the -- some of the federal money that was offered because they thought it would build a system that they would have to continually subsidize.

  • 10:34:43

    REHMPerhaps a political decision as much as an economic one, Mary Schiavo?

  • 10:34:51

    SCHIAVOWell, as inspector general, I also had to work on two -- many other agencies, but two of them were the National Highway Administration and the Federal Rail Administration, as well as urban mass transit. And what was very interesting is our country's whole philosophy was different. And I think that you're right. This was a political or a philosophical decision because in the '50s, of course, President Eisenhower said we're going to have the national highway system. And our highway system, you know, was obviously -- you know, it was amazing as the world went.

  • 10:35:18

    SCHIAVOAnd so some of the places where they're looking to put high speed rail -- for example, in Columbus, Ohio -- they were looking to put a high-speed rail from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati. Well, guess what, their beautiful, six-lane -- or eight-lane, rather, freeways running between those cities, you can drive between them in about two hours. Americans are not going to get out of the car. And so in this time of tight budgets -- you know, and I for one -- I will admit, when I was inspector general, I questioned the expenditure of billions of dollars for high-speed rail that replicates that -- literally would duplicate the national highway system. What we needed to find was really high-density traffic and, in some ways, it might be a state solution.

  • 10:36:00

    SCHIAVOSo when Ohio recently turned down the high-speed rail money, they were right because there's not the demand, and there's not enough ridership. By the way, the subway in Washington, D.C., every passenger that gets on there is subsidized by the taxpayer of two bucks a ride. I don't know if that's fair, and that's a political question.

  • 10:36:18

    REHMAll right. Let's talk about another recent air safety issue that -- the air controller in D.C.'s National Airport. What was the story there, Ashley?

  • 10:36:34

    IIIIt was a fairly simple story, and we have two experts in the room. So let me summarize it, and then I will turn it over to them.

  • 10:36:41

    REHMYou just go ahead and summarize it.

  • 10:36:43

    IIIThe controller on duty was a single controller on duty, one -- what's called the mid-shift. And he told the NTSB that he fell asleep. During the time he was asleep, the controllers who were directing traffic into the airport, who would turn it over to the tower for landing, advised the pilots that they had what's called an uncontrolled airport and the pilots are then -- it's their decision. They're -- just like the captains of the ship, they need to make a decision as to what they want to do with their ship or their plane, and they made a decision to land. So that's a summary. With that, I will turn it over to the experts.

  • 10:37:21

    REHMAll right. And with that, we'll take a short break, and I'm sure we'll talk further about this when we come back. I look forward to hearing your questions, comments, 800-433-8850.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMAnd just before the break, we were talking about an incident involving an air controller at D.C. national airport. Ashley Halsey of The Washington Post outlined that story for us. Steve Wallace, I know you want to comment.

  • 10:40:21

    WALLACEWell, Ashley's summary was accurate. I would just point out that 90 percent of the public use airports in this country -- there are about 5,000 of them -- do not have control towers. And many of those that do have control towers, they're not full time. I mean, this is based on traffic -- the nature of traffic that they have and the traffic accounts. So these pilots were instructed by the controller at the radar facility, in a remote location, to go ahead and treat as though the tower had closed. And that's what they did.

  • 10:40:53

    IIIMm hmm.

  • 10:40:53

    WALLACESo, clearly, something went wrong here. It shouldn't have happened. The administrator, Bob, a former airline pilot, said he was outraged, I think. But these passengers were not put at risk, and I'll defer to Lee.

  • 10:41:05

    COLLINSAbsolutely. What Steven says is true, that the pilots were caught at the last minute with an unexpected scenario.

  • 10:41:10

    REHMTrue.

  • 10:41:11

    IIIBut procedures are in effect that could make that and render it absolutely safe and secure for everyone involved. I think the wider issue is, once again, we've got one person on duty at a time in a tower -- again, the issue of the FAA being forced to try to do more with less. They need to be given the resources and the manpower to do the job the way it should be done, which would never, in my view, be one person in the tower by themself.

  • 10:41:36

    REHMMary Schiavo.

  • 10:41:38

    SCHIAVOYes. And one thing that -- when this happened and when I commented, I always pointed out that this was not the first time it happened. This has -- this is a problem endemic to a system where we're trying to operate with, you know, less making it more. When I was an inspector generator, for example, we got a situation where a fellow fell asleep in a tower. Several planes had to land and take off without the tower. And they actually had to break the door down to get in. So it's a problem that's happened before. We had investigations where people were actually leaving the tower and going out in the parking lot to take a nap, et cetera.

  • 10:42:10

    SCHIAVOThere are devices now that they're looking at that can wake up a sleepy controller. But, I think, with the problem with Washington, D.C. -- and like I said, it's happened all over the country -- but with Washington, D.C., there were national security overtones. And particularly, for example, in 1994, a private plane flew into the D.C. airspace and flew right into the White House. So that was why it was such a -- you know, there were such huge outcry. And the other issue that people didn't focus on is the air traffic controllers that were hired after Ronald Reagan fired the striking controllers back in the '80s -- are now eligible for retirement, and the FAA will be facing a huge shortage. So the FAA, you know, sometimes they don't fire air traffic controllers who do things wrong because they've invested so much money in them...

  • 10:42:52

    REHMSure.

  • 10:42:52

    SCHIAVO...and then they're facing a shortage. That's going to be an issue coming up real soon.

  • 10:42:56

    REHMWe've had number of e-mails similar to this from Ed who says, "The remarks you're making all implicate Southwest Airlines on every point, of criticizing the FAA shortcomings completely, overlooking the responsibility of the manufacturer, Boeing." Ashley.

  • 10:43:22

    IIIWell, Boeing has responded to this. Boeing has faced criticism in the past. And Boeing has responded to this particular incident rather swiftly. They issued the advisory on this aircraft. And the procedure there is, as soon as they issued that advisory, the FAA followed up with a directive, which basically instructs -- or the air -- or the manufacturer advises, and that becomes an instruction from the FAA. So Boeing, in this particular instance, seems to have responded pretty swiftly. Overall, I think, that their interest in keeping their planes safe is not lost on them.

  • 10:44:07

    REHMAll right. To Norfolk, Va. Hi, Bruce.

  • 10:44:11

    BRUCEHi.

  • 10:44:12

    REHMHi. Go right ahead.

  • 10:44:14

    BRUCEAfter the maintenance part of this conversation, whether it be in country or out of country, as a professional airplane mechanic, I can tell you that the FAA oversight needs to be stepped up on these outsource maintenance companies that are doing maintenance for the airlines. And, secondly -- and probably a bigger problem -- a good deal of the employees that are doing the maintenance at these outsource companies are not licensed airframes and power plant mechanics, which is why they are cheaper than people doing them in-house.

  • 10:44:49

    REHMMary.

  • 10:44:51

    SCHIAVOThat's right.

  • 10:44:51

    WALLACEMm hmm.

  • 10:44:52

    SCHIAVOHe's absolutely right. Bruce, boy, you are so right. And we have seen just a tremendous trend away from that valuable employee resource in this country. In years past, of course, you did have to have an AP, airframe and power plant certificate and be trained. You had to, you know, literally apprentice. We had just a tremendous resource in this country of trained aerospace workers, and we have lost that. It's amazing when you look at the employment statistics, that the United States has really lost a lot of its aerospace edge. It's going around the world, and I hate to see that for two reasons. One, it was a -- it's a tremendously valuable industry to this country.

  • 10:45:35

    SCHIAVOAnd, two, if we want to maintain our worldwide edge and be literally at top, we need to have that knowledge in this country. Bruce is so right. And I wish we would value it more highly and require it from the FAA.

  • 10:45:47

    REHMAll right. To Greensboro, N.C. Good Morning, Casey.

  • 10:45:53

    CASEYGood morning, Ms. Rehm. Can you hear me okay?

  • 10:45:55

    REHMSure can.

  • 10:45:56

    CASEYI've been in the aviation industry for 11 1/2 years, and I'd like to challenge a couple of assertions. One, that the mechanics of these third party maintenance are not qualified. I was a heavy metal mechanic, which means I did heavy structural repairs. And on several occasions, we had engineers coming from the factory going, golly gee whiz, we've never seen anything like this before and hand-holding them through this. Our level of experience is really unjustly questioned. The issue here is big industry throwing flour in our faces. Those -- the aircraft had problems 30 -- sorry, 20 years ago. 1993, there was a directive to take care after Aloha's (unintelligible) you know, the sardine can in Aloha Airlines.

  • 10:46:47

    REHMRight.

  • 10:46:48

    CASEYAnd we did those inspections then. Boeing dealt with those issues by putting tear straps. The airlines are interested in maintaining their airplanes for safety and for uptime. They're not culpable here in that if they don't know there's a problem, they don't know to look for a problem. We provide the level of expertise through inspection and maintenance to do as we're directed by both the FAA and the manufacturer. And I think there's a lack of culpability on both their parts wagging fingers at "low-cost carriers." Quality issues are not there, ma'am.

  • 10:47:26

    REHMAshley.

  • 10:47:28

    IIII can't speak to this as readily as Steve can. I think that these issues come up periodically. And I think that there is -- as Lee was saying earlier, there is a reactive culture in this rather than a proactive one. But I think Steve probably is in a better position, having spent his career on this issue.

  • 10:47:53

    WALLACEWell, it's interesting that some of our callers and many others are saying, well, the FAA is this -- I think this week in Washington, it's a hard time to look forward to seeing the government get bigger. And so, again, and as the gentleman who just called in, I would point out here that the airframe and power plant mechanic certificate to me is not as important as in -- at the very high tech world we live in today. We have repair stations, which have highly specialized training, and airframe and power plant is a basic starting point credential.

  • 10:48:29

    WALLACETo me, a huge factor in maintenance that we have not discussed, that should be discussed, particularly relevant to the Southwest event, is the monotony of some of these inspections, where someone is given a big, long line of ribbons to run a little eddy current probe along or do a very careful visual inspection. It gets boring. And so we try to advance the technology to automate and use things that don't require a human to do a highly monotonous, repetitive task.

  • 10:48:57

    REHMWhat happens when these older planes are put out to pasture? Are they sold to other countries?

  • 10:49:08

    SCHIAVOYes.

  • 10:49:08

    COLLINSTypically...

  • 10:49:09

    REHMLee.

  • 10:49:09

    COLLINS...many of them are placed in the storage, originally -- usually in the western parts of the United States where the climate is such that they can be stored and stored safely. A lot of times, other countries and particularly smaller countries with industries that are growing will look for them because they're bargain priced. But other times, they're just not usable, and so they're cut up and sold for scrap metal.

  • 10:49:30

    REHMAshley.

  • 10:49:31

    IIIYeah, there is, in Tucson, Ariz., a vast graveyard of airplanes. It's fascinating, and I've been by it a number of times. And one of the things that's interesting about it is -- something that Lee just alluded to -- you will see a plane that looks like it's been knotted because some sections of it have been removed. Now, I don't know, but I suspect that those are planes that have been cannibalized to help with the repair of planes that are still in service.

  • 10:50:01

    REHMAll right, to Shaker Heights, Ohio. Good morning, Karen.

  • 10:50:07

    KARENHi. This is really interesting discussion because I think it all points to how consumers in this country have suffered at the hands of deregulation in so many industries that affect us. You know, we're dealing with an old fleet of planes. They're not maintained well. Here in Cleveland, Ohio, we had a high school -- it was called Aviation High School -- and it was located on the grounds of the Burke Lakefront Airport. It's closed now. But people used to be able to go and get education, and they turned out airplane mechanics. It's a sad thing that it's closed. But I think that the whole issue is deregulation. No aircraft controller should be alone all night. What if he has got to go to the bathroom, for crying out loud?

  • 10:51:04

    REHMLee Collins.

  • 10:51:05

    COLLINSYou know, this points to a much wider issue that's been discussed in recent years. And, certainly, two years ago, Capt. Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeff Skiles, when they testified before Congress, they talked about how we were losing a culture of our lead in the aerospace sciences, in aviation technical expertise that we once held and held alone. There has been a lack, a dumbing down, if you will, of our appreciation for the aviation sciences. The piloting profession, the aircraft maintenance profession and all of the ancillary professions that go into making up a safe aviation system just don't seem to be valued like they once were.

  • 10:51:45

    COLLINSAnd that was a call to action from them and others to say we need to grab that back. We need to become what we once were. And I think that really points to the issue. We're seeing, now, some of the down line effect of losing that.

  • 10:51:58

    REHMWell, what do you see happening that's going to correct these problems?

  • 10:52:03

    COLLINSThere has to be a greater call. And we at CAPA, we say we're defending the profession. There has to be a greater call from all corners to get back to where we once were in this country. One of the callers before said, do we have to mistreat our people -- and I think there was one other quote she made, there were two things we do to them. No. I think what we offer them is a very safe and efficient air travel system, the safest in the world. That is what our goal should be. And I'm not necessarily sure that we can say that that's our focus right now.

  • 10:52:34

    REHMYou know, it's interesting. We hear that here in the United States, we have the best education system in the world. We have the best medical care in the world. We have the best flying system in the world. Are we losing all of that or -- I mean, these budget cuts that people are talking about sounds to me as though we're really dumbing ourselves down. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a call from Lansing, Mich. Good morning, David.

  • 10:53:19

    DAVIDGood morning.

  • 10:53:20

    REHMGo right ahead.

  • 10:53:21

    DAVIDMy question is -- has to do with original design. I'm a retired manufacturing engineer for Boeing, and I think they're just a fantastic company. We had to check everything -- the word was seven times -- every piece of paperwork, everything. My question is about the structure on these stretches because I've always been amazed on how we can add -- and, usually, I think, if I remember right, it was 20-foot sections every time you jump from, like, an X100 or 100 to 200, 300, and it keeps stretching, stretching, stretching. It'll become like a blimp.

  • 10:53:57

    DAVIDAnd it would seem to me -- I remember when we were doing that with 727s. I didn't work on the 737. I worked on the 747s and all the other models, basically. But I'm just amazed that they can stretch a 737 as far as they have, and I'm wondering if that has to do with the structural integrity.

  • 10:54:15

    REHMAshley.

  • 10:54:16

    IIITotally out of my realm. I will defer completely to Steve on this, who's the expert.

  • 10:54:20

    REHMOkay. Go ahead, Steve.

  • 10:54:21

    WALLACEWell, the gentleman's right in that they stretch -- all these airplanes get stretched. If you look at little 737 -- 100 first came out -- it looks like a little stubby thing now. And then it was a small plane, and it's grown and grown (unintelligible) looks like a 707 with two engines on it. And -- but the safety record, really, you just have to fall back and look at the safety record. Airbus does the same thing, built the A320. They stretched it today, 321. They shrunk it to the A319. Historically, these engineers, they know what they're doing, and there's no correlation between stretching a plane and its safety record.

  • 10:54:55

    REHMAll right. Let me ask you, Mary Schiavo. Do you see incident leading to broader investigations of other airplanes, other airlines? Couldn't just be Southwest.

  • 10:55:14

    SCHIAVOAnd it isn't just Southwest. What I hope happens is that people look beyond just this one instance. You know, Lee and Steve both have mentioned that we tend to be reactive, and we look at the crash and we say, oh, we fix this problem and we go on. But this is not isolated. For example, I worked on the crash of Chalk's Airline. It's a seaplane that went into Miami. And in that case, it was a 53-year-old airplane flying commercial passenger services from the United States, and the wing fell off. And that plane had not had ultrasonic testing to see it had -- you know, it had a million dollar paint job. But they should've jacked it up and put a real plane under it.

  • 10:55:47

    SCHIAVOI think that it's time that we really look into this issue of putting passengers on aging aircraft. And the reason it's so important in passenger service is because it's a punishing schedule. You load them on, you load it off and you go flying. This is not like a museum piece. And we really have to question whether we can, you know, get the planes out of the desert. And that happens, too, by the way, that one of the caller mentioned the planes in the airplane graveyard. I have worked accidents where they've gotten the aircraft out of the aircraft graveyard, you know, slapped a new paint job on it and some seats and started flying it again. As a country, we need to say, look, is this what we're about? Are we about the junkyard fleet? And it's time to ask that question.

  • 10:56:24

    REHMMary, how many planes do you think ought to be taken out of action?

  • 10:56:31

    SCHIAVOYou know, I got -- I actually got hate mail over this question when I wrote my book, "Flying Blind, Flying Safe," because I actually propose that we do have to do have a sundown on commercial passenger services planes because of the punishing schedule that you have to put them in to make money. It's an economic life. I think Steven mentioned that, and he's right. We value it based on their economic life, and in some point, it is not economically viable. And I actually proposed a sundown based on the number of cycles of a plane. At some point, you say good-bye. It's not going to be in passenger service. Go visit it at the Smithsonian. I got hate mail on it.

  • 10:57:04

    REHMMary Schiavo, Steven Wallace, Ashley Halsey, Lee Collins, thank you all so much. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:15

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales.

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