Southwest Grounds 38 Jets for Inspection

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Facing federal and internal investigations of its maintenance practices, Southwest Airlines grounded 38 jetliners for fuselage inspection Tuesday night.

The low-cost carrier canceled 4 percent of its scheduled flights yesterday. But by late afternoon, 13 of the grounded Boeing 737s had been inspected and returned to operation.

"We are working feverishly to inspect, clear and re-insert aircrafts into service," said Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King. "We expect to get a majority back in service by this evening."

The decision affected a total of 44 aircraft in its fleet of 520, as one was already retired and five were in routine maintenance. The carrier notified the Federal Aviation Administration last night.

"Luckily we had some great weather and our spares were put into regular scheduled service," King said. "We've been about 90 percent on-time."

Last week, the FAA slapped Southwest with a $10.2 million civil penalty -- the largest fine sought against an airline -- for operating 46 planes without performing mandatory inspections for fuselage cracks.

The agency has since been criticized for failing to ground the Southwest jets last March, when its inspectors first learned the carrier had not been properly examining the skins of the airplanes.

The FAA mandates fuselage examinations at intervals of no more than 4,500 flight cycles. But from June 18, 2006, to March 2007, Southwest operated the allegedly uninspected planes on 59,791 flights. Again, the following week, the carrier operated these planes on an additional 1,451 flights.

The FAA is reviewing of Southwest's maintenance procedures.

Southwest began an internal audit of maintenance records Tuesday, which revealed "ambiguity" in a Boeing service bulletin, King said. That prompted the grounding, which King called "extra precautionary measures." The skins of the planes in question had been inspected using a combination of visual observations and magnetic current in early 2000. Yesterday the skins were reexamined using the current only.

Acting on its internal investigation, Southwest also placed three employees on administrative leave and hired an outside consultant to review its maintenance program controls on Tuesday.

Southwest is one of two major airlines never to crash; the other is the Australian carrier Qantas. As a result, the grounding won't be vastly damaging to Southwest's reputation, said Michael Miller, an aviation consultant in Orlando.

"This is a blip on radar for Southwest," he said. "It's a negative, but they'll be just fine."

Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly met with acting FAA Administrator Robert A. Sturgell yesterday. He briefed Sturgell and top safety executives on the measures being taken to ensure Southwest complies with FAA standards.

"Again, we are mindful that during Southwest's 37-year proud history, we have safely transported the population of the United States -- every man, woman, and child -- four and a half times over," Kelly said. "This is a fact. We have been a safe company. I believe we are a safe company. I am committed to making sure we become safer still."

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