It’s unclear if damaged planes ever flew over East Valley skies, Southwest Airlines said after getting slapped with the largest fine ever levied by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA wants the Dallas-based carrier to cough up $10.2 million in penalties for 46 planes that hadn’t been inspected for fuselage cracks. The agency called the violations of its 2004 Airworthiness Directive “serious” and “deliberate.”
The directive “dates back to the Aloha accident in the ’80s where the … skin of the airplane literally peeled off,” said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.
During that flight, a flight attendant was killed, Brown said.
A Southwest spokeswoman said there was no way to know if any of the 46 uninspected planes had flown in or out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Of the 46 planes, six were later found to have cracks.
“We have more than 500 aircraft in our fleet. That’s a very, very small number of our aircraft, so (knowing) where they flew would be like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King.
Sky Harbor is Southwest’s third-busiest airport, and Southwest is the airport’s second-largest carrier behind Tempe-based US Airways. The airline has 205 daily departures from the airport.
The FAA said Southwest operated nearly 60,000 flights in 2006 and 2007 using the uninspected planes.
The airline flew 1,451 more flights with the same planes in March 2007, even after discovering that it had failed to conduct the required inspections, the FAA charged.
The agency had ordered airlines in September 2004 to conduct repeat inspections of some areas of the fuselage on some older models of Boeing 737 aircraft.
“The FAA is taking action against Southwest Airlines for a failing to follow rules that are designed to protect passengers and crew,” said Nicholas A. Sabatini, the agency’s associate administrator for safety.
The airline said Thursday it had complied with regulators’ requests and would contest any fine. The airline has 30 days to respond to the FAA.
The aim of the FAA’s 2004 directive was to make sure airline crews found and repaired small cracks before they grew large enough to become a safety hazard.
A spokeswoman for Southwest, Beth Harbin, said the airline brought the issue to the FAA’s attention and believed it had handled the matter to the agency’s satisfaction.
“We brought in 46 airplanes to take another look at them,” Harbin said.
“These are preventive inspections. On six of the 46, we found the start of some very small cracking. That’s the intent of the inspection schedule — to find something before it becomes a problem. These are safe planes.”
The FAA itself has come under fire for the Southwest case. A congressional committee and the Transportation Department’s inspector general are looking into why the FAA didn’t ground the planes when it learned of the missed inspections a year ago.
Tribune writer David Woodfill and The Associated Press contributed
to this report.