Investigation Over Southwest Safety Incident Shows Airline Industry In Fast Decline

By: Julia Mehalko | Last updated: Jul 01, 2024

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has opened up an investigation after a Southwest Boeing 737 jet unexpectedly took off from a Maine airport on a temporarily closed runway, almost hitting an airport ground vehicle in the process.

This latest situation is just the latest incident that has caused the FAA to quickly open up an investigation into Southwest Airlines.

A Closed Runway

According to the FAA, a runway at a Maine airport was temporarily closed, as workers were surveying the tarmac for safety to ensure everything was as it should be.

A close-up of an airport runway.

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The runway was supposed to be open soon, but flights were diverted elsewhere during the time of the runway’s closure. It was not supposed to be used.


Southwest’s Inaccurate Takeoff

However, Southwest Flight 4805, for some reason, decided to take off from this closed runway, even though pilots were told not to.

A Southwest Boeing jet taking off with buildings seen behind it.

Source: Dylan Ashe/Wikimedia Commons

This Boeing jet, which was a full flight, used this runway to depart from the Maine airport at 5:43 a.m., just two minutes before the runway was going to be opened back up again.

Air Traffic Control’s Warnings

Audio recordings from this situation reveal air traffic controllers trying to warn the pilots of this Southwest flight repeatedly. At one point, controllers said, “Just so you know, there is a vehicle on the runway, and it is closed.”

A plane flying in the sky by an air traffic control tower.

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However, it doesn’t appear that the pilots responded. This left the controller saying, “I tried warning him.”

A Near Miss

This jet’s sudden and unexpected departure on a runway that was closed almost caused a potentially dangerous accident, as an airport crew was on the tarmac in their vehicle.

A look up at a Southwest plane in the sky.

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The plane’s takeoff resulted in the maintenance workers on that tarmac scrambling to get off the runway.

A Lack of Communication

After this situation happened, the ground vehicle’s driver got in touch with the control tower to find out why they had allowed the plane to take off on the runway, as it was still closed.

Two pilots sitting in a plane’s cockpit.

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The air traffic controllers responded that they hadn’t communicated with the plane’s pilots at all. This suggests that their warnings to the pilots didn’t result in any response.


Southwest’s Response

Southwest Airlines has already released a statement responding to this latest open investigation.

A Southwest jet taking off in the air.

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The statement says, “Southwest Airlines is engaged with the NTSB and FAA to understand the circumstances of the early morning departure of Flight 4805 from Portland International Jetport on Tuesday, June 25. After departure, the aircraft continued safely to its destination.”


A Safe Flight

Luckily, this plane had a safe flight to Baltimore and no other issues were recorded. However, this latest situation comes after a string of issues on Southwest Airlines flights.

An inside look at passengers in a plane.

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These various issues have caused the public and the FAA to express their concerns over the safety of Southwest flights.


A Low Plane Over an Oklahoma Neighborhood

Most recently, the FAA has opened up an investigation into Southwest after one of its jets flew only a few hundred feet above an Oklahoma neighborhood outside of Oklahoma City.

A Southwest plane seen in a blue sky.

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This plane flew at a low altitude of about 500 feet, causing many residents of the neighborhood to wake up in the middle of the night, thinking the jet was going to crash into their homes.


A “Dutch Roll” Incident

Another Southwest incident occurred last month when one of its planes performed an uncommon and very dangerous “Dutch roll” maneuver. This maneuver occurred at 34,000 feet during a flight from Phoenix to Oakland.

A view of a Southwest plane flying in the blue sky.

Source: Sven Piper/Unsplash

Dutch roll incidents are very rare and can result in serious safety risks. After the plane landed, it was discovered the jet had “substantial” damage. Thus, another FAA investigation was opened.


What Is A Dutch Roll?

A Dutch roll a motion an aircraft will go into when the plane is both tail-wagging (or yawing) and also rocking from side-to-side.

A series of Southwest Airlines planes outside an airport in front of a grass lawn.

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This happens when an aircraft’s directional stability is weaker than its lateral stability. A Dutch roll can be a very dangerous motion to fall into, and can result in crashes, injuries or even death to those onboard. In the case of Southwest Airlines, all 175 passengers were uninjured.


Southwest Planes Dropping in Altitude

The Oklahoma situation isn’t the only time a Southwest plane has suddenly dropped incredibly low in altitude. In April, a Southwest jet dropped within 400 feet of the ocean off the coast of Hawaii.

A Southwest plane see over a tree.

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While Southwest has explained this occurred because of severe weather, the FAA has still opened up an investigation into the incident.


An Increase in Plane Incidents?

Since the beginning of 2024, airlines have been questioned by both the FAA and the mass public, as incident after incident has caused many to worry that planes have become unsafe.

A plane taking off into the air during sunset amid an orange sky.

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Though the public is aware of these potentially dangerous situations, analysts stress that air travel remains incredibly safe across the board.


There Have Been Several Safety Incidents This Year Already

The FAA have already conducted investigations for previous air safety incident already covered. However, not every incident goes under investigation.

A dark blue Southwest Airlines turbine has Southwest written on it with white letters.

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So far this year, Southwest Airlines has reported 21 air safety incidents, according to Aero Inside. Incidents include engine oil issues, burst tyres, and engines failing mid-flight. Over  the same time period in 2023, there were only 10 reported air safety incidents.


Another Investigation In April

While Southwest is under investigation for lack of communication and manoeuvring issues, other companies are being called into scrutiny for the quality of the aircrafts themselves.

The wing of a Southwest Airlines plane has a yellow, red, and blue strip on the end. The background is a blue sky with white clouds towards the bottom.

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The plane manufacturer, Boeing, was held under investigation this April when an engine cover fell off a Boeing 737-800 during take-off and struck a wing flap during a Southwest flight from Denver to Houston. The FAA said the aircraft was towed to the gate after landing.


Southwest Has Found Itself In Financial Trouble

Southwest is not only facing investigations from the FAA for several safety incidents this year alone, but also heading into dire economic straits.

On a white surface, there is a black calculator, a grey and black pen and a grey lid sitting on top of a white spreadsheet.

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The airline has ceased operations in four airports upon receiving fewer planes than expected from Boeing, causing them to start cutting costs to keep the company growing. The airline reported a loss of $231 million in the first quarter of this year, sending its share price down 10%.


Flying Habits Are Changing

On top of investigations and fewer Boeing deliveries than expected, Southwest also predicts to make less money than usual as consumer habits are changing.

On a world map, a US passport and camera resting on top of it.

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Losses are cutting deeper in the second quarter as the company expects revenue per available seat mile to decline by 4-4.5% annually. The carrier has responded by ceasing operations in some airports. By the end of this year, Southwest expects to have 2,000 fewer employees than at the start.


Major Changes Will Be Made To Southwest's Structure

From early August, Southwest will no longer operate in Bellingham International Airport in Washington State, Cozumel International Airport, George Bush International Airport in Houston, and Syracuse Hancock International Airport.

The interior of a plane is shown with passengers on board. The chairs have TV screens on the back of them.

Source: Stocksnap/Pixabay

The New York Times reports that Southwest will also “significantly restructure” its flights from other airports. They will do this by cutting the number of flights taking off from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare International Airports.


Safety Issues Go All The Way Back To Manufacturing

Southwest’s incidents have been for a variety of reason such as lapses in communication, some root problems lie in Boeing’s manufacturing of unsafe aircrafts.

A Boeing plane is on a concrete runway at nighttime from a low-angle shot.

Source: Pixabay

Administrator of the FAA, Mark Whitaker, said the company has “issues around the safety culture”. Whitaker told NBC that Boeing is focused on “production and not on safety and quality”. He said a “thorough safety briefing” was not part of the process before going on the manufacturing floor.


Boeing Needs To Save Its Reputation Fast

After this, Southwest said it would fly passengers to Houston on another plane three hours behind schedule. Boeing is having to make huge payouts as compensation for technical errors.

An Alaska Airlines plane is flying in a deep blue sky.

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In April, Boeing had to fork over $160 million to Alaska Air to make up for losses made due to a mid-air blowout in January during a flight from Portland (Oregon) to California in which passengers could have been seriously injured.


Southwest Is Not The Only Airline That Is Taking Losses

Southwest’s chief executive, Bob Jordan, told CNBC: “The network actions have really nothing to do with the Boeing delay.” This is especially plausible considering that other airlines suffered financial losses in the first quarter of this year as well.

On a tile floor in an open plan corridor are the silhouettes of people walking with suitcases.

Source: Skitterphoto/Pixabay

Boeing reported a $355 million loss which was even greater than what analysts forecasted. American Airlines suffered a quarterly loss of $312 million, with Alaska Airlines and United Airlines reporting losses too.


Shareholder Is Calling For Leadership Overhaul

With investigations underway and million in losses under its belt, now may be a tense time for Southwest Airlines’ major shareholders.

From the interior of an airplane, a person is looking at the chair in front of them from the side. It is dark inside and the only light is from the window showing the clouds outside.

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Hedge fund Elliott Investment Management announced in early June that it has a $1.9 billion position in Southwest Airlines, accounting for 11% of the company’s shares. The hedge fund has since issued a letter calling for new directors, a new CEO, more external executives, and a fundamental business review.


What Can We Expect From The Investigation?

Regarding the Southwest safety incident at the airport in Portland International Jetport, Maine, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told FOX Business that they will produce a preliminary report about the incident that will be available in around 30 days.

An airplane is flying over a city with a river running through it. The sky is clear and blue.

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A probable cause and contributing factors will not be disclosed until the final report is issued in about 12 to 24 months, according to the NTSB.


What Happens If The FAA Finds Non-Compliance?

While Southwest Airlines has not yet been found to have violated the FAA’s regulations, how high are the stakes for an airline under investigation?

FAA administrator, Mike Whitaker, at a press conference on a podium with the FAA's logo on it.

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The FAA has the authority to issue civil penalties of up to $400,000 against persons other than individuals and small business concerns and up to $50,000 against individuals and small business concerns. The maximum civil penalty the FAA can impose on commercial space cases is $120,000.