Thursday, August 27, 2009

FAA investigates Southwest Airlines' parts, repairs
10:59 PM CDT on Tuesday, August 25, 2009
By ERIC TORBENSON / The Dallas Morning News

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating Southwest Airlines Co.'s use of unauthorized parts and repairs on its older Boeing 737 planes just months after the carrier paid the agency $7.5 million to settle maintenance violations.

An FAA inspector working at a maintenance shop used by Dallas-based Southwest questioned whether some parts on Boeing 737-300 and 737-500 series planes were authorized for use.

The parts under examination divert hot engine exhaust away from the wings when the plane's flaps are extended.

As a result, Southwest grounded 46 aircraft Saturday, causing significant delays in its system and cut its on-time performance to less than two-thirds from its typical 90 percent.

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said that the agency was still in the process of understanding how the unauthorized parts got onto the aircraft and that it was too early to comment on any possible enforcement against Southwest.

Southwest said the issue was about whether a vendor correctly documented the repair and parts used on the planes. Southwest also said it wasn't about whether the parts themselves were authorized to be used on the aircraft, said spokeswoman Beth Harbin.

Southwest and Chicago-based Boeing Co. worked on a solution to address the problem with the FAA, but Southwest chose to temporarily ground the planes Saturday. The FAA allowed Southwest to fly the aircraft for 10 days until a permanent solution is reached.

"We are all working toward that resolution now, but there are no conclusions or mandates at this point," Harbin said Tuesday night.

The parts in question – hinge fittings located near the jet engines – aren't considered critical enough to jeopardize the immediate safety of the airplane. If they don't work properly, they can put too much pressure on the flaps – wing panels used to help control the plane.

What's unclear is whether a new investigation would violate the terms of the settlement reached with the FAA on March 2 that lowered a proposed fine of $10.2 million for the carrier's failure to do required inspections on some of its planes.

That settlement stated that Southwest needed to comply with a series of new procedures in its maintenance department, including adding more staff and improving its training manuals.

Southwest flew nearly 60,000 flights in 2006 and 2007 on aircraft that weren't checked for cracks, and the airline had a relationship with regulators that an FAA whistleblower called too cozy.

The resulting congressional hearings created considerable embarrassment for Southwest and for the FAA.

More recent problems have continued to raise questions about Southwest's maintenance practices.

An unexplained football-size tear in a Southwest jet bound for Baltimore July 13 forced the aircraft into an emergency landing, though no one was hurt.

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the cause of the rip in the top of the plane's fuselage.

Southwest, like many major airlines, pays other companies to do heavy maintenance on its fleet of 544 Boeing 737s.

Following the series of inspection issues at both Southwest and at Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc., the FAA cracked down on enforcement and has been substantially more aggressive in enforcing airworthiness directives designed to keep the flying public safe.

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