After conducting an internal investigation, last month Southwest Airlines leaders switched from defending the airline’s maintenance practices to suspending three maintenance employees and grounding a significant number of airplanes to re-inspect them for possible cracks. The FAA issued a statement on March 6 proposing that Southwest Airlines pay a $10.2 million civil penalty for its error. While most civil penalties shrink after the initial proposal, if Southwest did pay the full amount, it would be the highest penalty ever paid to the FAA. The record now stands at $10 million, paid by TAG Aviation in connection with former TAG subsidiary AMI Jet Charter’s charter certificate revocation last year.
In all, Southwest found that 46 of its Boeing 737s had to be inspected per an Airworthiness Directive (AD) that applied to the airplanes. “We found cracks on roughly half a dozen of those aircraft,” said Southwest president Gary Kelly in a statement issued by the airline. Southwest had previously disclosed to the FAA that it missed inspecting a small area required by the AD, according to Kelly, and “the fix was agreed upon with the FAA, and it was executed properly.”
Kelly said the FAA’s proposed civil penalty came as a surprise and that “our interpretation of the guidance that we got from the FAA at the time was that we were in compliance with all laws and regulations. I think the FAA has a different view of that today. That’s something that we’re investigating as well, but the important point is that at no time were we operating in an unsafe manner.”
Southwest hired former NTSB investigator Greg Feith to consult on the inspection problem and also pointed to a Boeing statement about the safety impact of the cracks that were found. Feith’s “assessment was confined to the safety of flight issues only.”
On March 15, 2007, Southwest technicians re-inspected a small area of fuselage skin that had been “inadvertently” missed when the airline originally complied with AD2004-18-06. During the time when the inspections were inadvertently missed, about 10 days, Southwest continued to operate those airplanes.
According to the Boeing statement, issued on March 6, 2008, “Southwest Airlines contacted Boeing for verification of its technical opinion that the continued operation of SWA’s Classic 737s, for up to 10 days until the airplanes could be re-inspected, did not pose a safety of flight issue. Based on a thorough review of many factors, including fleet history and test data, as well as other inspections and maintenance previously incorporated, Boeing concluded the 10-day compliance plan was technically valid. In Boeing’s opinion, the safety of the Southwest fleet was not compromised.”
Feith agreed, and in a March 7 statement said, “Based on the available data and information reviewed, it is apparent that there was no risk to the flying public in March 2007 while Southwest Airlines performed its program to re-inspect the small area of aircraft fuselages identified in the AD inspection that was inadvertently missed.”
On the same day, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) held a press conference in which he alleged, “Southwest Airlines, with FAA complicity, allowed at least 117 of its aircraft to fly with passengers in violation of [FARs]. Forty-seven were overdue for required fuselage inspections, and 70 were overdue a mandatory inspection of critical rudder control systems.” Oberstar accused FAA management of complacency, “reflecting a pendulum swing away from vigorous enforcement of compliance, toward a carrier-favorable, cozy relationship.
Inadequate Compliance Monitoring
“For nearly three years prior to disclosure of the violations, FAA inspectors who cooperated with our investigation had been warning FAA management that Southwest had an inconsistent and unreliable system for monitoring compliance with Airworthiness Directives. Both whistleblowers and the FAA’s internal investigation provided compelling evidence that earlier attempts to initiate strong enforcement actions were repeatedly vetoed by the FAA maintenance supervisor.
“Committee investigators interviewed FAA aviation safety inspectors overseeing other airlines, who said that they found it difficult to take enforcement action against the airline because the FAA management was ‘too close to airline management.’”
In a response to Oberstar’s comments, Southwest issued this statement: “We also want to assure you that Southwest Airlines is and has always been 100-percent compliant with the rudder air- worthiness directive (AD) referenced by Congressman Oberstar. The only rudder issue raised with us was never a violation of any FAA airworthiness directive. What was missed by Southwest was the accomplishment of a specific Boeing-required task pertaining to the standby rudder power control unit (PCU), which has nothing to do with the airworthiness directive that Congressman Oberstar referenced. The standby rudder PCU is redundant; meaning, it is not powered on the vast majority of flights. To date, Southwest has performed the PCU check at issue over 200 times with zero failures.
“The airworthiness directive referenced in the FAA letter of penalty involves one of many skin inspections on our aircraft and was never a safety of flight issue. Southwest actually performed the inspection, but missed inspecting an area of .006 of the total inspection area. Southwest helped develop the program in 1999, before it became an FAA directive. Boeing relied on Southwest’s program to develop the service bulletin that led to the eventual airworthiness directive in question. Southwest has a long history of working with Boeing, consistently maintaining a leadership role in developing maintenance programs for the Boeing 737 aircraft.”
On March 11, Southwest released preliminary results of its internal investigation of the alleged violations of FAA regulations in March 2007. The findings led the airline to place three employees on administrative leave, hire a consultant to review the airline’s maintenance program and AD compliance system, “fully engage with the FAA on its current audit of Southwest and committed to FAA leadership that it will investigate and address any deficiencies in its maintenance controls.”
A day later, Southwest grounded more than 40 airplanes because it “discovered an ambiguity related to required testing.” Normal service was restored on March 13.
Southwest has 30 days to respond to the FAA’s civil penalty proposal, and it will be interesting to see whether the FAA lowers the penalty from the proposed $10.2 million, given the airline’s cooperation.