Southwest Airlines has finally reached a compromise with the FAA on a $10.2-million civil penalty that the agency proposed on 6 March 2008 to penalize the carrier for operating 46 aircraft on some 59,791 flights without performing FAA-mandated inspections for fatigue cracks in the fuselage.

The compromise consists of a $7.5-million payment plus the completion of 13 additional safety-related requirements that will bring about changes in Southwest processes, its corporate organization and its training.

"We are confident that Southwest will achieve all of these measures. The settlement gets them to do much more than the minimum requirements so we thing it is a good thing," says a spokeswoman for FAA.

The additional safety tasks have staged deadlines over the next year and because they go beyond the issues that triggered the penalties, will bring about considerable change in the way that Southwest handles it maintenance, says the FAA's spokeswoman.

Southwest believes the settlment "will allow us to focus on safety going forward, rather than on issues that are behind us and that have since been addressed. Through comprehensive audits by the FAA, our own audits, and work by outside consultants, we are confident we have identified and addressed those issues".

Terms of the agreement include Southwest increasing the number of on-site representatives at its heavy-maintenance providers from 27 to 35, a task that the carrier has 30 days to accomplish. Southwest must grant FAA inspectors improved access to the databases it uses to track maintenance and engineering, excluding access to proprietary and competitive information. This is to be accomplished within 60 days.

Within 90 days, Southwest must designate a management head of quality assurance who is not part of the carrier's 119-person certification team. The carrier has 180 days to revise its Minimum Equipment Lists (MELs) so that they identify exact responsibility for specific deferrals. Within a year, Southwest must have rewritten and submitted all of its FAA-approved manuals.

If Southwest does not complete the additional safety tasks within agreed-upon time limits, the fine will increase by increments to a maximum of $7.5 million more, for a total of $15 million. The first $7.5 million, however, will be paid, with an initial installment of $2.5 million due within 10 business days of the agreement, which was signed today. Additional payments will be made on 15 January of next year and on 15 Janury 2011.

US Representative Jim Oberstar this year has reintroduced a bill he first offered in 2008 after the Southwest lapses were discovered. The proposed legislation would alter how FAA safety inspectors are assigned.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news