DALLAS — Federal regulators said Thursday they will seek a civil penalty of $10.2 million — the largest ever — against Southwest Airlines Co. for failing to inspect older planes for cracks and then flying them before inspections were done.
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The FAA said Southwest operated nearly 60,000 flights in 2006 and 2007 using 46 planes that had missed inspections for possible fatigue-related cracking on the fuselage areas.
The airline flew another 1,451 flights with the same planes in March 2007, even after discovering that it had failed to conduct the required inspections, the FAA charged. All but $200,000 of the proposed penalty dealt with those later flights.
Southwest said six of the planes had small cracks that required repairs.
The agency had ordered airlines in September 2004 to conduct inspections of some areas of the fuselage on some older models of Boeing 737 aircraft once every 4,500 flights.
"The FAA is taking action against Southwest Airlines for a failing to follow rules that are designed to protect passengers and crew," said Nicholas A. Sabatini, the agency's associate administrator for safety. "We expect the airline industry to fully comply with all FAA directives and take corrective action."
The airline said Thursday it had complied with regulators' requests and would contest any penalty. The airline has 30 days to respond to the FAA.
The aim of the FAA's 2004 directive was to make sure airline crews found and repaired small cracks before they became large enough to pose a safety hazard.
A spokeswoman for Southwest, Beth Harbin, said the airline brought the issue to the FAA's attention and believed it had handled the matter to the agency's satisfaction. Harbin said the airline believed the case was closed last year.
"We brought in 46 airplanes to take another look at them," Harbin said. "These are preventive inspections. On six of the 46 we found the start of some very small cracking. That's the intent of the inspection schedule — to find something before it becomes a problem. These are safe planes."
Harbin said Southwest got Boeing's opinion that flying the planes for up to 10 days until they could be inspected again did not compromise safety.
The FAA itself has come under fire for the Southwest case. A congressional committee and the Transportation Department's inspector general are looking into why the FAA didn't ground the planes when it learned of the missed inspections a year ago.
Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he got information from whistle-blowers indicating that an FAA inspector let Southwest operate flights before properly inspecting the planes. A hearing on that matter was scheduled for next week but has been postponed until April.
FAA regulations require that airplanes be grounded if a mandatory inspection has been missed, until the work can be performed.
The FAA could have sought a penalty of $25,000 per violation, or up to $36 million, according to a person close to the situation and who spoke on condition of anonymity. The person said the higher penalties were unlikely, partly because the agency must consider the company's ability to pay.
Airlines are under heavy financial pressure because of high fuel costs.
Thomas R. Anthony, a former FAA inspector who now directs the aviation safety program at the University of Southern California, said that if Southwest operated flights with planes that should have been inspected, "we have to ask how effective are the airline's internal controls. What decisions allowed them to continue to operate" those planes.
Joseph Gutheinz Jr., a former FAA and Transportation Department inspector, said penalties against airlines that violate FAA directives should be stiffer.
At $25,000 per violation, Gutheinz said, airlines "can justify rolling the dice and taking the chance" on getting caught. He also said the FAA is often too quick to bend to pressure from airlines and pilots.
The FAA has issued several directives to airlines regarding the inspection of fuselages dating back to a horrific accident in 1988 in which the roof of an Aloha Airlines 737 peeled open during flight, killing a flight attendant.
The largest civil penalty the FAA has ever imposed was $10 million, and the largest against an airline was $9.5 million about two decades ago against Eastern Airlines.
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