Washington Wire: FAA Proposes $10 Million Safety Fine For Southwest - Business Travel News

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Washington Wire: FAA Proposes $10 Million Safety Fine For Southwest

March 17, 2008 - 12:00 AM ET

By Patty Donmoyer

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration this month proposed a record $10.2 million fine for Southwest Airlines, saying the airline operated 46 airplanes that hadn't been inspected for cracks in their fuselage in accordance with federal regulations. "The FAA is taking action against Southwest Airlines for a failing to follow rules that are designed to protect passengers and crew," said FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Nicholas Sabatini. "We expect the airline industry to fully comply with all FAA directives and take corrective action." The fine covers 59,791 flights between June 2006 and March 2007, FAA said. Southwest made some 1,451 flights after discovering the lapse and discovered fatigue cracks in six planes, FAA said, calling the airline's conduct "deliberate violations." FAA has mandated inspections of the fuselages of Boeing 737 planes for fatigue cracks after a 1988 Aloha Airlines accident that killed one person and injured 64 was blamed on the phenomenon. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the airline was "surprised" by the fine and that it thought it had been complying with FAA guidance at the time. "We've got a 37-year history of very safe operations, one of the safest operations in the world, and we're safer today than we've ever been," Kelly said. Later, Southwest placed three employees on administrative leave , hired an outside consultant to help review maintenance program controls and removed 38 aircraft from service for one day for inspections. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the case "the most serious lapse of safety I have observed." Oberstar also criticized FAA for being too "cozy" with Southwest and other airlines and failing to detect the lapsed inspections earlier. FAA administrator Robert Sturgell said he "rejected" that claim, saying that flying is "far, far safer than ever."

Slowing Economy Will Mean Less-Crowded Planes

The Federal Aviation Administration projects that a slowing economy will reduce the growth of airline traffic in the next couple of years. At the annual FAA Aviation Forecast Conference March 10, FAA administrator Robert Sturgell said the agency projects passenger miles flown will increase 2.8 percent in the current fiscal year. Earlier forecasts had projected a 4.2 percent rate of growth. "In the near term, we're seeing a definite pause in growth," Sturgell said. "We didn't have one in last year's forecast, but this year, it's pretty clear. We're talking flat growth in operations, and slow growth in passengers." Still, Sturgell said, the agency is anticipating long-term growth to put pressure on an already stressed aviation system. FAA is working to reduce congestion and improve safety with new technologies, he said. "Despite the near-term pause in growth this year, we can't afford to let up, and we're not," he said. "People want to fly, plain and simple. And the FAA is doing everything we can to keep them flying and flying safely."
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