Of all the frightening words that populate the world of commercial aviation -- "delay" and "lost," to name two -- none are more petrifying than "malfunction." Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV ) has suffered three in the past week, and as a result, it's fallen under the watchful eye of inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
On Friday, Southwest Flight 812 from Phoenix to Sacramento lost cabin pressure when cracks in the fuselage opened into a five-foot-wide hole. The flight landed safely, and Southwest began a program of intensified inspections the next day, resulting in roughly 370 cancelled flights.
But getting aggressive has also yielded benefits. As of Sunday, the carrier was able to confidently return to service 19 of the 79 Boeing (NYSE: BA ) 737 jets under inspection. Checks on the remaining aircraft were due to be finished today; 57 had been cleared as of last night. Two have shown subsurface cracks in need of repair.
For investors, Flight 812's emergency landing and the subsequent inspections raise questions over whether Southwest needs to modernize its fleet. If so, the company's edge over United (NYSE: UAL ) , JetBlue (Nasdaq: JBLU ) , or Delta (NYSE: DAL ) , its closest peers, in returns on capital and equity could fade for a time. Rest assured that these companies will all make concerted efforts to take their piece of Southwest's market share. With the competition inherent in the airline industry, any weakness for a company becomes an opportunity for its competition.
However, I'm not so sure that this even matters. Southwest's culture of service -- its competitive edge -- shows no signs of changing. According to passenger reports I've read, airline employees are personally reaching out to affected customers. The effort seems to be strengthening bonds that were tight to begin with.
Passenger Julian Huerta told a reporter from Austin, Texas TV station KXAN that he didn't even consider rebooking a cancelled Southwest flight on another carrier. Want to bet that he isn't the only one?
Now it's your turn to weigh in. Let us know what you think about the incident, the airline's capital spending needs, and Southwest's service using the comments box below.
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