Southwest Airlines agreed to pay $2.8 million to settle a lawsuit by the federal government over fuselage repairs that a contractor performed on dozens of planes.
The Justice Department said Monday that Southwest also agreed to pay up to $5.5 million in additional penalties if it fails to improve oversight of contractors it hires to perform maintenance work.
The Federal Aviation Administration sued Southwest in November 2014 in federal district court in Seattle, and the case was scheduled to go to trial next March.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the settlement give Southwest strong incentives to correct problems discovered by FAA investigators.
The government asked the court to let it fine Southwest $25,000 to $27,500 for each time one of the planes flew before the maintenance work was done properly.
In court filings, Southwest had denied all of the FAA allegations and called some of them hyperbole.
Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said Monday that safety is the airline’s top priority. “We remain committed to meeting or exceeding all applicable FAA safety regulations,” he said.
The FAA faulted work done by Southwest’s contractor, Aviation Technical Services Inc. in Everett, Washington. The FAA said Southwest was still responsible for making sure that the work was done correctly.
The FAA charged that from 2006 to 2009 Southwest used 44 Boeing 737 planes that had undergone improper fuselage repairs. According to Boeing instructions, when repairs are made to overlapping aluminum panels that make up a plane’s fuselage, workers are to apply sealant between the panels and install new fasteners within a limited time.
ATS workers placed fasteners in only some of the rivet holes during the allowed time, and they didn’t properly support the fuselage during the work, the FAA charged.
The FAA said it alerted Southwest about the improper work in April 2009 but the airline continued to use the planes for another six months before doing further repair work.
The FAA also said Southwest flew two planes in 2012 after workers failed to move electrical wiring when altering systems that drain wastewater from galleys and lavatory sinks, which could create a fire risk in event of a lightning strike.
An ATS spokeswoman said the company would have no comment.
Concern over cracks and repair work in fuselages has grown in recent years. In 2009 and 2011, holes tore open in the skins of two Southwest jets during flights. Investigators blamed fatigue cracks in the aluminum, and Boeing ordered extra inspections for 737s.
In 1998, an Aloha Airlines flight attendant was swept out of the cabin after part of the roof of the Boeing 737 peeled open over Hawaii.