- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

DALLAS (AP) — Southwest Airlines Co. grounded 43 planes to examine whether they were structurally sound enough to carry passengers after the carrier recently acknowledged it had missed required inspections of some planes for cracks.

The announcement yesterday affects about 8 percent of its fleet and comes as Southwest faces a $10.2 million civil penalty for continuing to fly almost 50 planes after the airline told regulators it missed required inspections of the planes.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which announced the penalty last week, also has come under fire for failing to ground the Southwest jets last year, when agency inspectors learned the planes were not inspected for cracks in the fuselage.

Southwest initially said it grounded 41 planes, but spokeswoman Linda Rutherford later said 38 planes were taken off the schedule for additional inspection along with five others that already were in hangars undergoing routine maintenance.

Ms. Rutherford said the airline pulled the planes from service after getting clarification from manufacturer Boeing Co. on Tuesday night about the type of inspection — visual or magnetic, or a combination of both — needed for areas around the windows on some older Boeing 737-300 and 737-500 jets.

By midday yesterday, six planes had undergone the 90-minute inspection and were returned to service, Ms. Rutherford said. The remaining planes were expected to be flying again by last night. A 44th plane covered by the Boeing instructions already was retired, she said.

Southwest had canceled 118 flights by midday yesterday, or about 9 percent of its scheduled flights, according to Flightstats.com, which tracks airline operations. Ms. Rutherford said some of the cancellations were due to poor weather conditions in Houston.

The company said it had 520 Boeing 737 jets at the end of last year. Nearly 200 of them are an older model, the Boeing 737-300, which was supposed to undergo extra inspections for cracks in the fuselage.

Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said Tuesday he was concerned by findings of an internal investigation into the missed inspections. He announced the Dallas-based company had placed three employees on paid leave while it investigated the situation.

The FAA said Acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell met yesterday with Mr. Kelly, who detailed the steps the airline is taking to comply.

The FAA is conducting its own review.

Earlier, Mr. Sturgell called the events “a twofold breakdown in the aviation system” — Southwest’s failure to properly inspect its planes, and the FAA’s failure to ground the jets as “at least one FAA inspector looked the other way.”

The $10.2 million penalty is the largest the FAA has ever imposed on a carrier. Southwest said it will appeal.

Southwest shares fell 91 cents to end at $11.49 in trading yesterday after they earlier fell to a 52-week low of $8.87.

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