By Joe Brancatelli
March 14, 2008 8 a.m. EDT --A note about the ongoing Southwest Airlines situation. After canceling 4 percent of its flights on Wednesday when it briefly grounding dozens of aircraft, Southwest promised normal operations on Thursday. And it delivered: According to FlightStats.com, just seven flights out of almost 3,500 were cancelled yesterday. I still don't fully understand what is happening at Southwest, but I know a promise kept when I see one.

March 13, 2008 5 p.m. EDT --Here's what I know: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wants to fine Southwest Airlines $10.2 million, a record amount, for flying planes several years ago that were not properly inspected. Several Southwest executives and FAA bureaucrats have been implicated in a paper-pushing attempt to wink away whatever problems there were. Yesterday, Southwest briefly grounded almost four dozen planes when some other inspection issues came up. And Southwest has never had a crash-related fatality in its 37 years of operation. To be honest, all the other stuff confuses the hell out of me. I've never seen a more complicated, convoluted situation. I truly don't understand what is happening, which is usually the case when airlines and regulators fight over paper trails.

March 12, 2008 6:45 p.m. EDT -- Southwest Airlines has cancelled at least 140 flights so far today, according to FlightStats.com. That represents slightly less than 4 percent of its schedule, which is in line with what Southwest Airlines predicted for the day.

After the grounding, Southwest released a statement that said that a total of 44 aircraft have been affected by today's abrupt grounding. Southwest said one of the aircraft had previously been retired, five had already been in maintenance and the other 38 were removed from service today.

Southwest also claims that some of the affected planes have already been placed back in service and all of the others will be returned to operations by the end of the evening.

As for why it pulled the planes, Southwest said "During last night's review … of its maintenance records, the airline discovered an ambiguity related to required testing."

What that means is anyone's guess…

March 12, 2008, 1:15 p.m. -- Southwest has voluntarily grounded at least 41 planes. That's about 8 percent of its fleet of 520 Boeing 737s.

A grounding of these many planes, however briefly, will have a ripple effect on Southwest's schedule. Needless to say, there have already been cancellations today and there are likely to be scores of cancellations tomorrow and in the immediate days ahead.

You should check the status of any upcoming Southwest flights carefully before you fly. You might also consider booking away from Southwest in the short term until the airline gives details of how the groundings will affect the airline's ongoing schedule.

Depending on the length of the grounding of the planes, I would expect Southwest to temporarily cancel some routes entirely so that it can continue to service its busiest, highest-frequency and most popular routes. As you know, Southwest does not run a Big Six-style hub-and-spoke network, so it can act fairly quickly to isolate and minimize disruptions. Its fleet is entirely composed of Boeing 737s, which gives the carrier flexibility to move planes around quickly.

However, disruptions are inevitable, so please pay close attention if you are a regular Southwest flyer.

March 6, 2008, 4:15 p.m. -- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wants to levy a record $10.2 million fine against Southwest Airlines for failing to perform mandatory inspections on its fleet of Boeing 737s. The problem is with 46 planes that flew about 60,000 flights during 2006 and 2007. The FAA released this information today. Southwest has been posting its responses here.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.