Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Southwest Completes Inspections on More Than Half of Grounded Planes • Airline put some of its mechanics on overtime to conduct overnight checks on the grounded jets

The Wall Street Journal
Feb. 25, 2015 2:45 p.m. ET

Southwest Airlines Co. said Wednesday it had completed mandatory inspections on nearly 80 of the 128 jets it took out of service the previous day because of missed checks of backup rudder systems.

The Dallas-based discount carrier reported minimal disruptions to its flights on Wednesday from the incident, after the Federal Aviation Administration late Tuesday approved a plan to let Southwest keep the Boeing Co. 737-700s flying for up to five days while the work was done.

Southwest canceled about 80 flights Tuesday night and put some of its mechanics on overtime to do checks overnight on the grounded planes. As of Wednesday morning, it had canceled 15 additional flights related to the inspections, out of its more than 3,400 daily departures. It expects to complete the remainder of the checks in the course of normal operations and will clear all the aircraft well before the FAA deadline, a spokeswoman said.

Passengers who encountered disruptions were put on other flights. Severe winter weather in the southern U.S. in the past two days also has caused Southwest to cancel flights.

Southwest, the largest hauler of U.S. domestic passengers, has a fleet of 665 Boeing 737s, of which 447 are the 737-700 variety, which seat 143 passengers. The Southwest spokeswoman said the number of flights and time period during which the affected aircraft operated without the mandatory checks varies with each plane, so she had no specifics.

The FAA on Wednesday declined to comment on how many flights occurred before Southwest disclosed the slipup to the agency and voluntarily took the planes out of service temporarily. It isn’t known if the FAA will recommend civil penalties against Southwest for the lapse. An agency spokesman said the FAA can’t comment on open investigations.

Missing inspections on a few planes isn’t uncommon, although computerized maintenance systems are designed to keep mechanics on track to perform periodic and one-off checks and repairs. But missing so many required inspections and having to negotiate a last-minute agreement with safety regulators to keep the planes flying is highly unusual, according to safety experts.

The FAA last July proposed a $12 million civil penalty against Southwest for overseeing a contractor’s allegedly improper repairs to 44 of its planes to prevent fuselage cracking, which the carrier challenged in federal court. In 2008, the agency proposed a $10.2 million penalty over other maintenance issues, and the airline settled for $7.5 million.

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