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Southwest given until year's end to replace wing parts

Southwest Airlines Co on Tuesday was given until the end of the year to replace unauthorized parts on dozens of planes, the U.S. government said.
/ Source: Reuters

Southwest Airlines Co on Tuesday was given until the end of the year to replace unauthorized parts on dozens of planes, the U.S. government said.

A replacement plan proposed by the carrier and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will not affect Southwest's flight schedules, the airline said in a statement.

Southwest shares lost nearly 2 percent on Tuesday to close at $8.02 on the New York exchange.

The FAA could have grounded the older model Boeing Co 737s equipped with the unapproved metal hinge fittings that wound up on 82 aircraft over the past three years, roughly 15 percent of the carrier's fleet.

Groundings could have resulted in canceled flights and other disruptions to the carrier's operations.

The affected fittings are part of a bracketed component that prevents hot engine exhaust from damaging wing flaps when they are extended.

Regulators must sign off on parts used on commercial aircraft.

Boeing and the FAA determined that the unapproved parts installed by a private contractor posed no immediate safety hazard but still needed to be replaced.

"The parts have been inspected, and the FAA agrees that they meet the requirements of the aircraft manufacturer, Boeing," Mike Van de Ven, Southwest's chief operating officer, said in a statement.

The FAA said it required work on roughly 50 planes, but Southwest said late on Tuesday that it had already replaced affected parts on more than 40 of the 82 737-300 and 500 series planes since August 21 when FAA inspectors discovered the problem during a routine check of maintenance records.

Parts on the roughly 40 remaining planes must be swapped out by December 24, 2009, according to the replacement plan.

Planes still flying with unapproved parts must be inspected for wear every seven days and the airline must check to see if there are unapproved parts in other areas of its all-737 fleet.

"We concur that this plan is the best and most reasonable manner in which to fulfill the FAA's mandate," Van de Ven said.

The FAA said it would continue to investigate the matter. The carrier could still face a fine, officials said.

The FAA believes the problem is limited to Southwest, which agreed in March to pay a $7.5 million fine to settle government allegations that it flew planes without performing required safety inspections.