The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a $10.2 million fine — the largest in its history — against Southwest Airlines last month. The fine is for Southwest flying 46 jets during nine months in 2006 and 2007 without performing required inspections for cracks in the fuselage. Cracks eventually were found on six of the planes. The Boeing 737 jets made 59,791 flights before the airline realized in March 2007 that the inspections had not been completed. The FAA said that the airline deliberately made 1,451 more flights after discovering the lapse. The agency transferred an FAA supervisor who had been overseeing Southwest to another job and has “taken appropriate action” against an unnamed employee, according to a spokeswoman for the FAA. The inspections were ordered after undetected cracks in an Aloha Airlines 737 allowed a portion of the skin to peel away in flight in 1988, killing a flight attendant.
After having discounted the problems for several days, and claiming that safety was never compromised, on March 12th Southwest grounded 41 planes, which is about 8% of its fleet. The company had 520 Boeing 737 jets at the end of last year. Nearly 200 of them are older models, the Boeing 737-300, that were supposed to undergo extra inspections for cracks in the fuselage.
Southwest, the low-fare carrier that has more domestic flights than any other airline, disclosed the missed inspections to the FAA in March 2007. The FAA has a program that encourages airlines to disclose safety problems without fear of being punished. Linda Goodrich, vice president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents FAA inspectors, said many union members have come forward to complain that the agency abuses the program. They claim that “the agency has allowed (airlines) to use this system to get around enforcement actions” and that airlines have been allowed to “disclose” safety problems and escape fines even though inspectors initially discovered the problems. It should be noted that FAA regulations prohibit that practice.
Whistle-blowers working with the House Transportation Committee had produced “detailed documentation” about the problems at Southwest, according to a February 11th letter from the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation. Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), had asked the agency to investigate the claims. The previous high FAA fine was levied last year against TAG Aviation. That fine, $10 million, was for operating charter flights in violation of federal law. Interestingly, airlines often pay less than the amount the FAA initially seeks. Clearly, Southwest needs to improve its safety programs, but the FAA also needs to do its job.
Source: USA Today
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