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What to do when your airline has safety issues

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Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration fined Southwest Airlines a whopping $10.2 million for failing to inspect aging aircraft for cracks in their metal skin. This week, Southwest grounded 43 of its 520 Boeing 737s to do belated inspections, briefly disrupting its schedule.

Those two moves came as a jolt to Southwest, a hugely successful, populist airline which points out that it has never had an accident that killed a passenger or crew member—and to air travelers, who wonder what they can do when even the most trusted carriers reveal heretofore unknown safety issues.

The unsettling, undeniable truth is that air travel always has had an element of risk, and always will, in spite of the U.S. aviation industry’s heartening progress in reducing accidents in recent years. But while risk is real, there are things air travelers can do to manage risk.

First, when safety problems result in flight delays or cancellations—or news about safety problems simply shakes your confidence—you can book away from the affected airline. You can always go back if and when your confidence returns.

In Southwest’s case, the carrier scrapped 4 percent of its flights Wednesday, returning to normal on Thursday. But because Southwest has aggressively challenged legacy airlines and fellow low-cost carriers by moving into big markets like Philadelphia—long a US Airways stronghold—it faces competitors on those heavily trafficked routes. In such circumstances, flyers have a choice of airlines.

Even before booking a flight, you can research and weigh an airline’s safety record, just as you would its prices, routes, number of frequencies and departure and arrival times.

The best way to do that is to tap U.S. government data—public information you have a right to see. The FAA, a branch of the Department of Transportation, posts voluminous quantities of such information on its Web site. Indeed, the problem with government is not so much a dearth of data as the challenge of digging through it all to unearth the nuggets you want.

The FAA lists accident reports and statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board under its Accident & Incident Data heading. You can also listen to the actual air traffic control audio tapes of mishaps, such as a much-publicized runway incursion at Los Angeles International Airport last Aug. 16, or read a transcription. You can read about every accident in U.S. civil aviation in the past 10 years.

Perhaps most importantly, you can look up air carrier fatalities airline-by-airline.

Given how helpful the FAA can be, it is disturbing that this watchdog took such a long time to bark about Southwest when problems occurred. More information may on the way about that, though, thanks to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearings on the FAA-Southwest relationship, scheduled for April 3. Hopefully, we’ll soon find out if the watchdog has teeth.