Tuesday, December 30, 2008

DALLAS | Southwest Airlines is still negotiating with the Federal Aviation Administration over allegations of safety violations four months after regulators gave the airline a deadline to pay a $10.2 million penalty.

Southwest hopes to reduce the penalty, which the FAA proposed for operating thousands of flights with planes that had missed inspections for cracked fuselages.

The airline said it doesn’t deserve such a large penalty, partly because it reported the missed inspections to regulators and has improved safety procedures. Southwest has set up an independent division to oversee compliance with safety rules and hired an outside company to audit maintenance procedures, a spokeswoman said Monday.

“We’re looking for a solution that is fair and reasonable, given the facts,” said Beth Harbin, the Southwest spokeswoman.

Ms. Harbin said there is no timetable for settling the issue, although in late August the FAA gave Southwest a deadline to pay or face referral of the case to the Justice Department for legal action.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr confirmed that agency officials are “still discussing the amount” with Southwest and called it part of the normal negotiations over such an action.

“We try to take into account an air carrier’s attitude and the real improvement they make in a program when we decide what a penalty should be,” Mr. Dorr said.

The Southwest case, and testimony by whistleblowing FAA inspectors, led critics in Congress to charge that the agency has been too cozy with the airlines it regulates.

Shortly after the missed inspections at Southwest came to light, American Airlines was forced to ground its fleet of MD-80 aircraft and cancel more than 3,000 flights because electrical wiring on the planes hadn’t been packed according to FAA standards. The FAA said the wiring raised the risk of fire near the planes’ fuel tanks.

Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American, said the airline has added new training for mechanics to comply with safety orders called “airworthiness directives,” which can be highly technical documents.

“We’ve been educating our mechanics that our relationship with FAA has changed, and they have to work precisely to the airworthiness directives because the FAA can punish them individually and the airline,” Mr. Wagner said.

Unlike the case at Dallas-based Southwest, the FAA hasn’t announced a civil penalty, nor given American any indication that one is coming, Mr. Wagner said. He declined to say whether Fort Worth, Texas-based American, a unit of AMR Corp., has received letters of investigation or concern, which could be a precursor to a penalty, and the FAA declined to comment on potential penalties.

American’s vice president of line maintenance retired this month and was succeeded by a regional maintenance executive. Mr. Wagner said the retirement was voluntary and not related to the FAA issues.

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