The Dallas Morning News reports that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investigating Southwest Airlines for the third time in two years. According to the News, "FAA inspectors think Southwest and a Seattle-area repair station failed to follow federally approved procedures when they carried out repair work on sections of the fuselage.
Under federal guidelines for calculating civil penalties, the FAA could propose a fine in the tens of millions of dollars because 44 planes flew more than 100,000 flights while out of compliance, according to one official with knowledge of the investigation."
Here's what apparently happened: An airline maintenance contractor was brought on to replace exterior skin panels on a number of Southwest's 737s. The contractor decided it couldn't complete the work as instructed, and proposed a workaround, which Southwest approved. Southwest did not, however, inform the FAA, as it was supposed to, which resulted in planes returning to the skies without FAA approval.
According to the News, "Part of the work involved a process known as shoring, which is how mechanics secure the aircraft frame while skin panels are changed. In addition, the inspectors found that ATS' mechanics didn't always apply rivets to refasten the skin panels within the 20 hours prescribed by Boeing, the plane manufacturer. The rivets must be applied in that timeframe to ensure that sealant doesn't leak out, creating a gap between the skin and the frame of the airplane.
"In the worst-case scenario, faulty work could lead to metal fatigue, corrosion or other deterioration of the aircraft's skin. Even tiny cracks in a jet's skin can expand as the plane's fuselage expands and contracts during thousands of pressurization cycles."
As I mentioned above, this isn't Southwest's first run-in with the FAA. Several aircraft were nearly grounded this past September when the FAA learned the airline used unapproved parts in repairs, and a cracked fuselage earlier in 2009 threw light on the airline's maintenance record.
The News points out that this series of investigations is not only a reflection of Southwest's safety policies and programs, but also of past cozy relationships between airlines—Southwest in particular—and the FAA: "Federal regulators have taken a stricter view of federal airworthiness regulations since a 2008 congressional investigation brought to light allegations that some FAA officials in North Texas became cozy with carriers like Southwest."
Southwest has not commented on the investigation.
Readers, what do you think? Does Southwest have an endemic safety problem on its hands? Do all these investigations make you feel less safe? Or do you think this is just a rough patch, and not representative of any larger problems?