March 13, 2008 in Business

Southwest grounds planes after missed inspections

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review
 
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A Southwest Airlines jet takes off in Phoenix. Southwest Airlines says it grounded 43 planes for structural inspections.Associated Press
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DALLAS – Southwest Airlines Co. grounded 43 planes to examine whether they were structurally sound enough to carry passengers after it recently acknowledged it had missed required inspections of some planes for cracks.

Southwest shares fell more than 9 percent before closing down 7.3 percent.

The move announced Wednesday affects about 8 percent of its fleet and comes as Southwest faces a $10.2 million civil penalty for continuing to fly almost 50 planes after the airline told regulators that it had missed required inspections of the planes.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which announced the penalty last week, has also come under fire for failing to ground the jets last year, when agency inspectors learned they had not been inspected for cracks in the fuselage.

Southwest initially said it grounded 41 planes, but spokeswoman Linda Rutherford later said 38 planes were taken off the schedule for additional inspection along with five others that were already undergoing routine maintenance.

Rutherford said the airline pulled the planes out of service after getting clarification from manufacturer Boeing Co. on Tuesday night about the type of inspection – visual or magnetic, or a combination of both – needed for areas around the windows on some older Boeing 737-300 and 737-500 jets.

By midday Wednesday, six planes had undergone the 90-minute inspection and were returned to service, Rutherford said. She said the remaining planes were expected to be back flying by Wednesday night. A 44th plane covered by the Boeing instructions had already been retired, she said.

Southwest had canceled 118 flights by midday Wednesday, or about 9 percent of its scheduled flights, according to Flightstats.com, which tracks airline operations. Rutherford said some of the cancellations were due to bad weather in Houston.

The company said it had 520 Boeing 737 jets at the end of last year. Nearly 200 of them are older models, the Boeing 737-300, that were supposed to undergo extra inspections for cracks in the fuselage.

Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly had said Tuesday he was concerned by findings from an internal investigation into the missed inspections. He announced that the Dallas-based company had placed three employees on paid leave while it investigated the situation.

The FAA said Acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell met Wednesday with Kelly, who gave a briefing on the steps the airline is taking to comply with inspection orders. The FAA is conducting its own review.


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