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Southwest glitch prompts review of all US airlines

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Bloomberg News / March 19, 2008

US airlines will undergo a special audit to determine whether carriers other than Southwest Airlines Co. failed to comply with government safety directives, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

"Prudence dictates we take this additional precaution," Robert Sturgell, acting administrator of the Washington-based agency, said in a statement. The FAA has no indication other carriers missed inspections, spokeswoman Laura Brown said yesterday.

Southwest faces a $10.2 million fine, the largest ever sought against a carrier, after the FAA said March 6 that it flew 46 planes without required fuselage inspections.

The FAA, which regulates the world's busiest airspace, is trying to restore confidence in its oversight after one of its supervisors was accused of intentionally allowing part of the Southwest lapse.

"The FAA is doing it for the obvious reason, to reassure people," said Carol Carmody, a Washington consultant and former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The Southwest issue certainly woke everybody up."

FAA auditors will examine a sample equal to 10 percent of agency directives at each of more than 100 airlines, Brown said. An initial sample of 10 directives at each carrier will be finished March 28, with the full audit to be done by June 30.

"One carrier's noncompliance" made the broader review necessary, said Nick Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, in an e-mail to the carriers.

The audit "will validate the effectiveness of airline compliance systems," the Air Transport Association, the carrier's Washington trade group, said in a statement.

Southwest made 59,791 flights with 46 planes before it became aware on March 14, 2007, that it had missed inspections, according to the FAA and the US Office of Special Counsel.

The Dallas-based airline verbally notified FAA of the lapse March 15 of last year, the special counsel's report said. On March 19, a Southwest manager made, and the FAA supervisor accepted, a false written report saying the planes no longer were out of compliance, according to the special counsel's office.

Actually, the planes flew without inspections until March 23, according to the FAA. Failure to inspect the planes between March 15 and March 23 accounts for $10 million of the $10.2 million fine, according to the agency.

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