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The FAA has proposed a $12 million dollar fine to Southwest Airlines for continuing to operate more 44 aircraft on more than 20 flights after being alerted to poor maintenance practices on their fuselages by their contractor ATS.
The aircraft in question underwent “extreme makeovers” beginning in 2006 which were intended to eliminate potential cracking of the aluminum skin on their Boeing 737s. According to the report from the FAA, Aviation Technical Services (ATS), which does maintenance work for Southwest, failed to adhere to proper procedures for replacing the fuselage skins and procedures for securing the airplanes and stabilizing them as the fuselage skins were replaced. According to the FAA, “All the work was done under the supervision of SWA, which was responsible for ensuring that procedures were properly followed.”
The “extreme makeover” maintenance began in 2006, and the FAA alleges “SWA returned the jetliners to service and operated them when they were not in compliance with either FAA Airworthiness Directives or alternate, FAA-approved methods of complying with the directives.”
The FAA also found, during its investigations, that ATS had applied sealant to the aircraft skins but not installed fasteners in all of the rivet holes in the time required for the sealant to set properly. The FAA indicates: “If a plane is shored improperly during skin replacement, the airframe could shift and lead to subsequent problems with the new skin.” These problems, according to the FAA could allow moisture to penetrate the skin, leading to corrosion.
Southwest also failed to install a ground wire on water drain masts on two of its Boeing 737s as required by an Airworthiness Directive issued by the FAA, which would address risks from lighting strikes on these components.
“The FAA views maintenance very seriously, and it will not hesitate to take action against companies that fail to follow regulations,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Southwest was previously fined $10 million in 2008 for continuing to operate aircraft on nearly 60,000 flights after maintenance check failures on fuselage cracks. This violation involved forty-six aircraft and the fine was later reduced to $7.5 million, but the FAA warned that fines might double if the failure was repeated.
An FAA Spokesperson told Skift:
“The record proposed [fines] amount was $24.2 million against American Airlines in August 2010 [also for maintenance failures]. Today’s case is the second largest. The American case was bundled into the airline’s bankruptcy case along with several other outstanding enforcement cases. The judge ultimately approved a $24.9 million settlement. The previous $10.2 million against Southwest is the third largest.”
This type of maintenance is often outsourced by air carriers who do not have the capabilities to perform the maintenance in-house, but the FAA made SWA responsible to directly oversee fuselage maintenance and update its procedures for inspection after the first incidents in 2008.
Skift asked SWA to comment on this fine and whether they would be making any supplier changes as a result of these regulatory violations. A SWA Spokesperson replied:
“Southwest Airlines will respond to the FAA allegations in accordance with applicable procedures. Having fully resolved the repair issues some time ago, none of the items raised in the FAA letter affect aircraft currently being operated by Southwest Airlines..We always strive for full compliance with established and approved processes and procedures. Southwest is committed to continuously making enhancements to our internal procedures, as well as improvements related to oversight of our repair vendors. This continuous improvement has helped bolster Southwest’s maintenance program, continuing our Safety commitment for every Southwest Employee in all aspects of our operations.”
SWA has 30 days to respond to these allegations from the FAA and the proposed fines.