The five foot hole that abruptly interrupted beverage service onboard Southwest flight 812 did more than put a dent in the airline’s safety record—it also threw the company into a frenzy over how to handle its scheduled flights while nearly one third of their fleet was grounded. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered 81 of Southwest’s 737-300s grounded until each had undergone an extensive inspection, or about 15 percent of it’s fleet. It’s an operational nightmare.
Southwest has famously flown the 737 as its exclusive aircraft for at least the last 20 years. It would seem that such reliance on one type of aircraft would make Southwest more vulnerable than other carriers to problems like the one that has befallen the 737-300. But the reality is the airline’s reliance on the 737 may be an asset in these circumstances.
“Southwest does have some advantages over other firms,” said Martin Lariviere, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences. “Because its fleet is uniform and they don’t give out assigned seats, they have more flexibility in managing cancellations.” For example, say a flight between Chicago Midway and Kansas City was scheduled to use one of the grounded 737-300s. If that flight had more passengers than another one in the system, Southwest could easily reroute the plane from the other, emptier flight. Other airlines with mixed fleets wouldn’t have the same option. “They will not fly an oversized 777 on a route that a 737 serves, and even if they are willing to do that, the 737 pilots may not be approved for flying bigger jets,” he said.
Airlines have a large incentive to operate a limited fleet of aircraft. Pilots need to be certified on each aircraft they are to fly, so the fewer types, the more flexibility the company has in scheduling. Maintenance costs are also reduced. Perhaps most importantly, airlines purchase aircraft that suit the routes they fly. Southwest is a short haul carrier, which is exactly the market for which Boeing created the 737. The airline would have no reason to purchase a wide-body 777 which is geared toward longer routes.
The 737-300 makes up just over 30 percent of Southwest’s fleet. By comparison, United Airlines’ fleet is dominated by the Airbus A320 and its closely related cousin, the A319. Combined, they comprise just over 40 percent of their total fleet. American Airlines is in a similar situation where almost 40 percent of its fleet are MD-82s and MD-83s, two variants of the same basic aircraft. “Clearly if there is ever any systematic problems with that model, AA is up a creek,” Lariviere said.
Another part of the problem is one that all airlines share—nearly every flight is full and every plane in service. “Recovering from any canceled flight—let alone the 300 or so that Southwest canceled over the weekend—is harder than it has been in past years,” he said.
Photo by kmanohar.