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What the FAA..? Southwest fined $12m by FAA but good luck in understanding why

A Federal watchdog being exposed

A Federal watchdog on the job

Roads-2-Roam previously criticized the limitations of a ‘ rent an AP news story‘ model where a News outlet reports a base story such as “FAA seeks $12 million fine against Southwest“, but the details are provided by a centralized ‘news-lite’  AP release. The so called News outlet make tweak the AP release to make it appear as if it is theirs, but it many cases leave it as is.

In the 7/28 topical case about “FAA wanting to fine Southwest”, Roads-2-Roam saw the headline and wanted to learn more. We wanted to know why it was going to be fined.

Unfortunately,the top articles on new searches were the same AP base story despite it being different new sources. The more we read on different news sites despite minor changes, the more we recognized the same AP article.

Eventually we found a non-AP different article that picked apart the story under ‘aviationblog’ under Dallas Morning news, written by Terry Maxon. From the aviationblog article:

Here’s how we understand the allegations. It wasn’t that the modifications turned out to be unsafe. It was that Southwest’s contractor with Southwest oversight used a method that wasn’t approved at that time by the FAA, and that Southwest operated the modified aircraft knowing that the modifications hadn’t received FAA approval. From the FAA announcement:

“The FAA alleges that beginning in 2006, Southwest conducted so-called ‘extreme makeover’ alterations to eliminate potential cracking of the aluminum skin on 44 jetliners. The FAA conducted an investigation that included both the airline and its contractor, Aviation Technical Services, Inc., (ATS) of Everett, Wash. Investigators determined that ATS failed to follow proper procedures for replacing the fuselage skins on these aircraft. FAA investigators also determined that ATS failed to follow required procedures for placing the airplanes on jacks and stabilizing them. All of the work was done under the supervision of Southwest Airlines, which was responsible for ensuring that procedures were properly followed.

“Southwest returned the jetliners to service and operated them when they were not in compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations, the FAA alleges. The regulatory violations charged involve numerous flights that occurred in 2009 after the FAA put the airline on notice that these aircraft were not in compliance with either FAA Airworthiness Directives or alternate, FAA-approved methods of complying with the directives. The FAA later approved the repairs after the airline provided proper documentation that the repairs met safety standards.”

The FAA said Southwest operated the airplanes in question for more than 30,000 flights after the FAA became aware of the unapproved methods of work and before the FAA gave its okay to the repairs performed on the airplanes. We presume many more flights were operated before the FAA realized what had happened.

Thus, the FAA later looked at the work and eventually approved it as being safe. One Tick box out of three is now understood, thanks Terry. The second violation was related to how the contractor placed plane on the jack to do repairs. Per FAA release

During its investigation, the FAA found that ATS workers applied sealant beneath the new skin panels but did not install fasteners in all of the rivet holes during the timeframe for the sealant to be effective. This could have resulted in gaps between the skin and the surface to which it was being mounted. Such gaps could allow moisture to penetrate the skin and lead to corrosion. As a result of the improper repairs, these airplanes did not comply with Federal Aviation Regulations.

For the third violation, the FAA alleges

Southwest Airlines failed to properly install a ground wire on water drain masts on two of its Boeing 737s in response to an FAA Airworthiness Directive addressing lightning strikes on these components. As a result, the aircraft were not in compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations. The airplanes were each operated on more than 20 passenger flights after Southwest Airlines became aware of the discrepancies but before the airline corrected the problem.

So what happens next? Apparently all the papers (no surprise since they all refer to the AP reference) allude to this is the opening hand in a negotiation settlement. Southwest has 30 days to formally respond.

While this FAA fine with Southwest is news today, the FAA has previously proposed fines against other airlines including United, US Air and AA. In fact, the largest fine requested was against AA for $164.2m back in 2012.  Yes, you read that right $164.2m whereas the Southwest fine today, is $12m.

Back in 2012, Poster ‘aaexecplat’ on aviation.net forum board, discussed the ‘proposed fine” better than any of the mainstream media:

“Let’s all take a deep breath…first of all, these are claims going back as far as 5 years. On top of that, you will notice that these are proposed amounts, not settled amounts. That means that AA will pay only a fraction of this absurd “fine”. Third, the FAA on the ground in DFW in many cases requested MUCH smaller fines, only to have Washington increase the fines by factors as high as 20x.”

And it turns ‘aaexecplat’ was correct where per WSJ article headline “American Airlines Parent in Penalty Deal With FAA” in 2013:

The Federal Aviation Administration, which last summer sought a record $162.4 million in proposed and potential civil penalties from American Airlines parent AMR Corp. , has reached a settlement in which it would receive just $24.9 million from the carrier, according to a court filing on Thursday.

Expect something similar with Southwest – a negotiated down settlement.

So what’s the real story on who is the villain here and what is the real problem to be fixed? Bottom line : Is it going to make us safer?

While Southwest has some culpability here in the fact that they were busted in not following the letter of the FAA directives, it seems passenger safety was never compromised. If it was true safety, FAA had the power to ground them. Thus, why are we now in 2014, looking at a 2006 to 2009 procedural non-compliance event similar to AA 5+year old problem.

Which makes us question the whole “proposed fine”. It smells somewhat of a form of legalized extortion being led by a Washington professional to claim a political resume scalp.

This sounds much like their sister Federal Prosecutors, the SEC going after Wall Street firm on a Civil Prosecution to end up with financial settlement of a fine but no actual admission of guilt. Looks good in a headline but doesn’t change behavior of Wall Street. In other words, a cost of doing business.

Therefore, if it is a real problem that impact peoples safety or fiscal health of the country, the Feds need to bring a criminal case with jail time not civil one.

What is the conclusion to the meaning of this FAA fine? A big fat Roads-2-Roam shrug but to show that we are [cough] fair and balanced [/cough],  we certify that it is a bit fat shrug on BOTH shoulders.

Trajan.

Trajan