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Thu, Mar 06, 2008

FAA Proposes $10.2 Million Civil Penalty Against Southwest Airlines

Whistleblowers Allege LCC Flew Planes Without Inspections

ANN REALTIME UPDATE 03.06.08 1600 EST: Moments ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it has initiated action to collect a $10.2 million civil penalty from Southwest Airlines for operating 46 airplanes without performing mandatory inspections for fuselage fatigue cracking. Subsequently, the airline found that six of the 46 airplanes had fatigue cracks.

"The FAA is taking action against Southwest Airlines for a failing to follow rules that are designed to protect passengers and crew," said FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Nicholas A. Sabatini. "We expect the airline industry to fully comply with all FAA directives and take corrective action."

The FAA alleges that from June 18, 2006 to March 14, 2007, Southwest Airlines operated 46 Boeing 737 airplanes on 59,791 flights while failing to comply with a September 8, 2004 FAA Airworthiness Directive (AD) that required repetitive inspections of certain fuselage areas to detect fatigue cracking.

As ANN reported earlier in the day (see below,) original estimates had placed the amount of the likely fine to Southwest at around $3 million. The FAA says the amount of the civil penalty reflects the serious nature of what it says were deliberate violations.

The FAA alleges that after Southwest Airlines discovered that it had failed to accomplish the required repetitive inspections, between March 15, 2007 and March 23, 2007, it continued to operate those same 46 airplanes on an additional 1,451 flights.

Southwest Airlines has 30 days from receipt of the FAA’s civil penalty letter to respond to the agency.

Original Report

1500 EST: Federal inspectors alleged this week that low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines flew at least 117 planes in violation of mandatory checks through March of last year.

According to congressional documents obtained by CNN, Southwest -- statistically, one of the safest carriers worldwide -- flew the aircraft in passenger service for 30 months past inspection guidelines. The report asserts those planes were "unsafe" and "not airworthy."

Two FAA inspectors prepared the report, and have since requested whistle-blower protection status from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The two assert FAA managers knew of the lapses, but opted to allow Southwest to conduct safety checks at a slower pace as "aircraft out of service would have disrupted Southwest Airlines' flight schedule."

Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, who chairs the Transportation Committee, called the inspectors' report "one of the worst safety violations" he has ever seen. "The result of inspection failures, and enforcement failure, has meant that aircraft have flown unsafe, unairworthy, and at risk of lives," Oberstar told CNN.

The inspectors say Southwest did not comply with mandatory intervals for rudder system checks on 70 of its Boeing 737s, required in the aftermath of two fatal 737 crashes in the 1990s. The whistleblowers also assert Southwest failed to comply with fuselage fatigue inspections on 47 more planes.

According to the documents, one of the FAA inspectors discovered a fuselage crack on one of Southwest's 737s last year. After notifying the airline, he checked over safety records, and determined "dozens" of other planes had flown past the required inspection intervals.

"Southwest Airlines at the time of discovery did not take immediate, corrective action as required to address this unsafe condition and continued to fly the affected aircraft with paying passengers," the inspector's report claims.

The airline did voluntarily disclose last spring it missed some inspections, the documents state... but the inspectors say Southwest continued to fly the planes before inspections were complete.

"That is wrong," said Oberstar. "When an aircraft is flying out of compliance with airworthiness directives, it is to be shut down and brought in for maintenance inspection. That's the law."

Oberstar plans to call for a hearing on the matter. Despite reports that federal regulators are seeking as much as $3 million in fines against Southwest for the alleged safety lapses, the airline told The Wall Street Journal it has received no notice of such a penalty.

A spokewoman for the airline added Southwest would be surprised to receive such a fine, "considering it was Southwest that found, disclosed and fixed this issue last March."

FMI: www.oberstar.house.gov, www.southwest.com

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