Something extraordinary has happened. As reported on April 24, 2019 on the aviation website The Air Current, recently, representatives from Southwest Airlines visited an Airbus A220 operator located in Europe to examine the airplanes.
One of the most enduring exclusive partnerships
This marks what could be the end of one of the most enduring exclusive partnerships in history – Boeing and Southwest Airlines. For 48 years, Southwest has flown only Boeing 737 aircraft, and is today the world's largest operator of the aircraft. Southwest was the launch customer (the first to fly) for the 737-300, 737-500, 737-700, and 737 MAX 8, and it is poised to be the launch customer for the 737 Max 7.
Other famous exclusive partnerships include Coca-Cola and McDonald's, Starbucks and Yahoo!, GoPro and Red Bull, Pottery Barn and Sherwin-Williams, BMW and Louis Vuitton, and Uber and Spotify.
Not only has Southwest been a customer, it has also guided the development of the 737. Southwest has helped Boeing out when it needed it by taking delivery of 737s when other airlines canceled their orders. If Boeing requested, Southwest would give up some of its delivery positions to other airlines, and Southwest also offered some of their older 737s to airlines looking to get their hands on the plane.
4.5% of the Fleet is Grounded
In March 2019, the U.S., along with countries around the world, banned all Boeing 737 Max aircraft from flying in their airspace due to safety concerns following the crashes of Indonesian airline Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
Currently, 4.5 percent of Southwest's fleet (34 out of 754 planes) have been removed from service, and they don't appear on Southwest's schedule through at least August 2019. The airline has been significantly impacted, on the day of the grounding, Southwest's stock dropped by more than 4 percent. According to The Air Current, currently Southwest holds 383 orders and options for additional 737 Max aircraft, either with Boeing itself, or with aircraft lessors.
An Extraordinary Meeting
In the same article, The Air Current reported on an extraordinary meeting that took place last year on the busiest travel day of the year in the U.S. – the Sunday following Thanksgiving – at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
At that meeting, were the 737's Chief Pilot, Craig Bomben, Boeing's Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs, John Moloney, and Boeing's Vice President of Product Development, Mike Sinnett. The purpose of the meeting was to brief the leadership of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association on what Boeing had learned in the wake of the October 28, 2018 crash of Indonesian airline Lion Air Flight 610.
The Boeing executives shared their plans for a software update to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which has been implicated in both crashes. The Southwest pilots had only learned of the existence of MCAS following the Lion Air crash.
In an interview with The Air Current, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association president, Jon Weaks, said, "We were mad as hell that Boeing didn't tell us about it." At the meeting, Weaks had asked Boeing, "Are there any more surprises?" Weaks went on to tell The Air Current that he now questioned Southwest's strategy of having only a single fleet created by a single manufacturer.
Whistleblowers Had Reported Problems
On April 29, 2019, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported that on April 5, 2019, it had received at least four calls from whistleblowers reporting possible problems with the 737 Max. The complaints alleged damage to the wiring of the plane's Angle of Attack Sensor caused by foreign object debris (FOD). Previously, The New York Times has reported that metal shavings were found near wiring on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the U.S. Air Force has stopped taking deliveries of the Boeing KC-46 fuel tanker due to foreign object debris being found in some of those airplanes.
Another of the whistleblower calls dealt with concerns over the shutoff switches for MCAS.
In the near term, Boeing is relying on its relationship with Southwest to see it through these hard times, but that relationship may no longer be enough.