Safety in the skies

The Baltimore Sun

Southwest Airlines has been a leader in affordable, safe air travel over 37 years and developed quite the reputation - and loyal following - as a result. That's why last week's report by the Federal Aviation Administration that the carrier failed to perform required inspections on 46 of its older planes was disturbing. It gave new meaning to Southwest's no-frills way of doing business. But there can be no short cuts when it comes to safety.

The FAA last week fined the Dallas-based airline a record $10.2 million for the inspection lapse, discovered in 2007, as well as its inexcusable decision to keep those 737s in the air despite missing the required inspection deadline. The purpose of the inspections was to find hairline cracks in the body of a plane. Of the 46 planes at issue in the FAA's complaint, six were later found to have tiny cracks and were repaired.

In an unrelated matter Wednesday, Southwest grounded 38 planes as a precautionary measure while it double-checked some maintenance reports - someone was paying attention. By yesterday, nearly all of those planes had been reinspected and cleared for flight.

When Southwest, which has a hub in Baltimore, learned of the FAA's concerns about the alleged inspections problem, the airline opened an internal review of its maintenance procedures. It has since followed through on preliminary findings, putting several employees on administrative leave and hiring an outside consultant to do a full review of its maintenance program. Those were the right moves, responses that provide some reassurance that when CEO Gary C. Kelly talks about Southwest's commitment to safety and "making sure we become safer still," he means it.

But the inspection flap also has raised concerns about FAA oversight because an agency staffer reportedly gave Southwest the go-ahead to fly the 46 planes even after the problem with the maintenance check was discovered. How is that possible? The FAA this week reinforced to its regional inspection managers the need to inspect all carriers with the same level of scrutiny - as if anyone should need a reminder of that imperative.

When the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meets April 3 on this matter, it should review the FAA's inspection and maintenance directives and regulatory functions to ensure it's a responsible watchdog of today's crowded skies.

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