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Sat, Mar 15, 2008

Southwest Adopts More Contrite Tone Over FAA Fine

CEO Hopes To Settle Proposed Penalty

When news first surfaced last week of Southwest Airlines' failure to comply with mandatory safety inspections on dozens of its jets in 2007, the Dallas-based low-cost carrier adopted a measured, though defiant, tone in its statements to the press. The airline insisted it received permission from the FAA and Boeing to keep the planes flying, even as the deadline passed for surface fatigue tests... and pointedly noted the airline has an enviable safety record.

Over the past three days, however, Southwest has changed its colors somewhat. As ANN reported, the carrier voluntarily pulled 38 of its planes from service Wednesday, after it failed to determine whether the fatigue tests had been performed; another five suspect planes were already in for maintenance.

The checks in question focused on structural and skin fatigue along the cabin windows of older 737-300 and -500 models. As it turns out, four of those grounded aircraft required repairs, according to the airline.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly and other airline officials also stepped away from their earlier comments, criticizing the FAA for unfairly targeting his airline and exaggerating the safety concerns.

On Wednesday, Kelly met with Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell to discuss the issue... and he emerged from those talks much like a chastened child, walking back from the woodshed.

"I am not satisfied we are as compliant" with maintenance requirements "or as safe as we could be," Kelly said following that meeting, reports The Rocky Mountain News. He also vowed Southwest would revamp its maintenance procedures; earlier this week, the airline placed three maintenance supervisors on paid leave.

"We will certainly be very cooperative in working with the FAA," Kelly said. "I told them we were determined to do whatever was necessary," adding the agency "gave us very stern marching orders."

Southwest hopes to reach a settlement agreement to the $10.2 million fine proposed by the FAA last week, officials added.

"We apologized to the FAA. We acknowledged we can do better," Ron Ricks, executive vice president for law, airports and public affairs at Southwest, told The New York Times.

In addition to (hopefully) avoiding further oversight ire, Southwest's very public acts of contrition are also intended to encourage Southwest passengers to have faith in the airline, and restore its vaunted reputation among customers.

"There are some that have lost trust in Southwest Airlines," Kelly said. "We will have to regain that trust."

FMI: www.southwest.com

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