FAA Hits Southwest Airlines with Record $10.2 Million Proposed Fine

 

Accusing Southwest Airlines Co. of operating aircraft without properly inspecting them, the FAA on Thursday proposed a penalty of $10.2 million, which would be the largest fine ever against an airline, if enforced. The airline says it will appeal and is "eager to present the facts," noting that the inspections at issue were "routine and redundant" and "never a safety of flight issue."

Southwest flies only Boeing 737 planes, and the inspection program at issue was part of an industry-wide FAA initiative to examine older planes more closely for signs of structural fatigue. While commercial jetliners are built to fly for decades, the repetitive fuselage inspections imposed in 2004 are aimed at finding any minor skin cracks or other structural issues that occur with heavy use. They usually can be fixed easily. But FAA said Southwest operated 46 planes on nearly 60,000 flights while "failing to comply" with the inspection requirement between June 2006 and March 2007.

Southwest continued for eight days to operate the same planes on more than 1,400 additional flights after discovering last March that it missed the inspection deadline, FAA said, adding that cracks were subsequently found on six planes after the inspections were completed. The airline said it acted promptly once it discovered the lapse and reported it to the FAA.

"The FAA is taking action against Southwest Airlines for a failing to follow rules that are designed to protect passengers and crew," said Nicholas Sabatini, the agency's associate administrator for safety. Yet the agency also noted that there had been no safety incidents related to the missed inspections of the planes.

In a statement responding to the charges, Southwest said it consulted Boeing Co., the aircraft manufacturer, about the airlines' plan to reinspect the planes over a period of up to 10 days, while continuing to operate them. The FAA "approved our actions and considered the matter closed as of April 2007," Southwest said in the statement.

In its own statement, Boeing confirmed the consultation and agreed that the plan did not pose a safety issue. "Based on a thorough review of many factors, including fleet history and test data, as well as other inspections and maintenance previously incorporated, Boeing concluded the 10-day compliance plan was technically valid. In Boeing's opinion, the safety of the Southwest fleet was not compromised," the statement said.

FAA informed Southwest of the fine in a letter Thursday and gave the carrier 30 days to respond, but it took virtually no time for the airline to say it would appeal. In a statement posted within hours to its Web site Thursday, Southwest said, "We understand the FAA's concerns, and we are anxious to work with them."

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