The $12 million fine is the second-largest ever proposed by the FAA, according to an FAA spokesman. The record proposed amount was $24.2 million against American Airlines in August 2010, also for aircraft maintenance issues. The American case was bundled into the airline’s bankruptcy along with several other outstanding enforcement cases, an FAA spokesman said. A judge ultimately approved a $24.9 million settlement.
Three separate incidents are related to repairs on Boeing 737 jetliners operated by the Dallas-based Southwest and completed by a contractor.
“Safety is our top priority, and that means holding airlines responsible for the repairs their contractors undertake,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
In one incident beginning in 2006, Southwest conducted “extreme makeover” alterations to eliminate potential cracking of the aluminum skin on 44 planes. The FAA alleges Southwest’s contractor, Aviation Technical Services of Everett, Wash., failed to follow required procedures for placing the airplanes on jacks and stabilizing them. If a plane is shored improperly during skin replacement, the airframe could shift and lead to subsequent problems with the new skin, the FAA said.
“Southwest returned the jetliners to service and operated them when they were not in compliance with federal aviation regulations,” the FAA said.
The FAA later approved the repairs after the airline provided proper documentation that the repairs met safety standards.
In addition, the FAA said it found the contractor applied sealant beneath the new skin panels but did not install fasteners in all of the rivet holes during the timeframe for the sealant to be effective. This could have resulted in gaps between the skin and the surface to which it was being mounted, the FAA said. Such gaps could allow moisture to penetrate the skin and lead to corrosion.
In a third case, the FAA alleges that Southwest failed to properly install a ground wire on water drain masts on two of its Boeing 737s, in response to an FAA Airworthiness Directive addressing lightning strikes on the components.
Aviation Technical Services said in a statement that it settled with the FAA over the matter last year “with no fault found.”
“Safety is our top priority in providing major airlines the best possible maintenance support. We are fully cooperating with the FAA and continuing to partner with Southwest Airlines,” the company said.
A Southwest spokeswoman said, “safety is paramount, and we always strive for full compliance with established and approved processes and procedures.” She pointed out the incidents concern repair issues addressed several years ago, and that none of the items in the FAA allegations affect aircraft currently operated by Southwest. She also noted the fine is only proposed by the FAA, and that Southwest will respond to regulators about the allegations.
Southwest Airlines has 30 days from the receipt of the FAA’s civil penalty letter to respond.
“Southwest is committed to continuously making enhancements to our internal procedures, as well as improvements related to oversight of our repair vendors,” the Southwest spokeswoman said.