Monday, November 15, 2004


Dispatch misses story while Southeast Airlines problems continue

How's this for a lede:
The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed fining Southeast Airlines $240,000 for safety violations that include allowing a plane to make 279 landings in a 72 days without required inspections for fuselage cracks
It's a pretty scary story, too. Seems there were problems with two other Southeast planes and all three are still flying. Since Southeast only has eight planes, chances are pretty good that if you have flown the airline recently out of Columbus, you rode one of these questionable birds.

Since Columbus is one of Southeast's principle destination/departure points, could this fine reporting have come from the Columbus Dispatch? Are you kidding? That the Dispatch has made some improvements over the last few years isn't news. But, as the dust up over its presidential endorsement showed, these changes have been quantitative, at best, and definitely not qualitative.

Nowhere is this more painfully obvious than it's "Business" section. This lame, lazy name is perfectly symbolic for the lame and lazy reporting that goes on there. If it wasn't for the PR shops at the insurance companies and the banks, these guys wouldn't cover anything close to "news." And "hard" news? Well, maybe when someone local business exec is finally doing a deserved perp walk. But, don't count on the Dispatch's Business Team to do any serious digging, let alone report on something with a possible labor or consumer slant.

Case in point: Southeast Airlines. Southeast (NOT Southwest) is a low, low cost operator that flies routes to locations like the Tampa Bay area, the Orlando area, the Columbus area, the Philadelphia area, the New York area. The key word is "area". Southeast avoids the large, higher landing fee airports and instead goes to the St. Petersburg airport instead of Tampa and Rickenbacker Airport instead of the main Columbus airport.

Nothing wrong with that business model, per se. Southeast, apparently, engages in some other aggressive cost-cutting techniques which may include flying overweight planes, using sub-standard equipment, omitting mechanical inspections and engaging in corner-cutting training of pilots.

Nevertheless, Southeast has been fairly popular with consumers in the Columbus area and has had regularly scheduled flights several times a week to Florida destinations for over a year.

Several months ago, we had something of a blind post suggesting some of the problems mentioned above were going on at what was obviously Southeast airlines. This was based on some interesting reporting going on at the St. Petersburg (Fl) Times. That newspaper had been in contact with a couple of disgruntled pilots who had gotten canned and were retaliating by spilling the beans about Southeast management ignoring safety rules in order to keep to the airline's flying schedule. This story caught our eye since we had several alarming experiences with three consecutive Southeast flights.

We know the Dispatch eventually knew about this story because we sent it to them. As a matter of fact, after we posted the information, we also sent a message via email to every Dispatch business reporter whose email we could find.

End result? Nada! Now, this wasn't totally surprising. After all, they had already been scooped by the folks in St. Pete. Just running their story would have been fairly embarrassing, and finding a new angle on the story would have meant getting to work before 10 am or missing a lunch or a golf game. So, since no one besides Hypothetically Speaking even knew about the problem - who cares what some washed-up, whinny pilots say is going on.

Who cares? Well, actually a good reporter - Jean Heller - in St. Pete still does. Last week she reported the story above and how Southeast had been using substandard brake and wheel assemblies that had been overhauled by a company that is not even in business anymore.

It should be noted that the story of the proposed fines didn't just drop into Heller's hands. As she recounts:
The FAA proposed the fines last year, according to spokesman Christopher White, but they did not become public until the action appeared on the FAA's Web site this month and the agency supplied documentation Friday to the St. Petersburg Times.
In otherwords, she had to do some work - like monitoring the FAA site. Good for her. Bad for the Dispatch's crew. None of them apparently can hack that kind of effort.


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