Airline in probe puts 3 on leave

The Baltimore Sun

Low-fare giant Southwest Airlines placed three employees on leave yesterday as a result of its own investigation into allegations that it violated federal regulations by flying thousands of flights on jets that had not undergone mandatory safety inspections.

Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary C. Kelly also vowed to address any deficiencies in the airline's maintenance program, hiring an outside consultant and working with the Federal Aviation Administration on its audit of the carrier's practices.

"I am concerned with some of our findings as to our controls over procedures within our maintenance airworthiness directive and regulatory compliance processes," Kelly said in a statement. "I have insisted that we have the appropriate maintenance organizational and governance structure in place to ensure that the right decisions are being made."

The FAA proposed Thursday a record $10.2 million fine against Southwest, the biggest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The airline allegedly flew 46 of its older Boeing 737s in 2006 and 2007 without inspecting for microscopic fuselage cracks related to heavy use and age. Six of the planes Southwest failed to inspect were later found to have fissures.

Southwest, which said it had reported the violations in March 2007, said it would contest the fine.

Kelly said yesterday that he had immediately ordered an investigation by outside counsel when he learned last month that Southwest's safety practices were being investigated. He ramped that up after the FAA issued its complaint, his statement said.

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger declined to elaborate on Kelly's statement.

The federal aviation watchdog itself has drawn fire from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, whose chairman, Rep. James L. Oberstar, charged last week that the FAA had ignored the concerns of two of its inspectors for nearly three years.

Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, said Southwest had continued to operate the jets that had missed inspections with the full knowledge of the FAA's principal inspector who oversaw the airline's maintenance in Dallas.

That inspector has since been removed from his position, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said yesterday.

Oberstar said Southwest also had operated 70 aircraft that were overdue for inspections of their rudder control systems. The two FAA whistleblowers, Southwest and FAA officials are scheduled to testify before the House panel April 3.

Jim Berard, an Oberstar spokesman, said, "The Southwest announcement is consistent with our findings. We look forward to exploring this further at our hearing."

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