- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Southwest Airlines will pay a fine of $7.5 million for flying planes that had missed critical safety checks — $2.5 million less than government regulators initially ordered.

The agreement announced Monday by the Federal Aviation Administration also gives the Dallas-based airline nearly two years to pay the fine in three installments of $2.5 million each. The first installment is due in 10 business days from the signing of the agreement.

Last year, the FAA ordered Southwest to pay $10.2 million, which would have been the largest fine in the agency’s history. The airline protested the fine and has been in negotiations with the FAA for the past year.

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The largest fine against an airline by the FAA remains a $9.5 million penalty against Eastern Airlines in 1987 that wasn’t fully paid because the airline went bankrupt. The $7.5 million settlement agreement with Southwest marks the next largest, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

The airline was fined for flying 46 airplanes on 59,791 flights without performing mandatory inspections for fuselage cracks. The planes, all Boeing 737s, carried an estimated 145,000 passengers.

Federal investigations revealed that the FAA’s cozy regulatory climate with airlines led to the suppression of whistle-blower complaints against Southwest. Once uncovered, the complaints led to stepped-up inspection efforts of all carriers’ maintenance records and hundreds of planes being grounded in early 2008.

The settlement agreement also requires Southwest to pay an additional $7.5 million if it does not accomplish 13 safety-related steps, including:

• Increasing by eight the number of on-site technical representatives the airline has at companies that perform major maintenance on its airplanes.

• Allowing FAA inspectors improved access to information used for tracking maintenance and engineering activities.

“This agreement furthers aviation safety by requiring important improvements to the airline’s safety program. Some of those safety measures exceed FAA regulations,” said FAA Acting Administrator Lynne A. Osmus.

Southwest said in a statement, “This settlement with the FAA will allow us to focus on safety going forward, rather than on issues that are behind us and that have since been addressed. ”

Associated Press writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.

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