Southwest Grounds Jets After FAA Fine

Southwest Airlines has grounded some of its jets after the Federal Aviation Administration levied a massive penalty on the airline for failing to complete some required inspections.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Southwest Airlines is under pressure. The airline admits it failed to carry out required inspections for structural cracks in its planes. Yesterday, it grounded nearly 40 jets so they could be inspected again. Southwest was just slapped with a record $10 million penalty from aviation regulators, who are also under scrutiny.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Southwest conducted an internal probe, then grounded the planes and placed three employees on leave. Yesterday, the airline's CEO, Gary Kelly, also met with Federal Aviation Administration chief Robert Sturgell to explain what Southwest will do to make sure it follows the rules.

The FAA itself has come under fire. Whistleblowers have told the House Transportation Committee that FAA supervisors knew about the safety violations last year and ignored them.

Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar chairs the committee.

Representative JAMES OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota): I think we've seen a pendulum swing away from vigorous enforcement of compliance toward a carrier-favorable, cozy relationship with the airlines.

SCHALCH: Administrator Sturgell calls what happened inexcusable and acknowledges that at least one FAA inspector, quote, "looked the other way." But he defends his agency's overall record. He said this week it's one thing to ask tough questions...

Mr. ROBERT STURGELL (FAA Administrator): But it's entirely another to call into question the very integrity of our entire aviation system. Safety is serious business.

SCHALCH: He says he's sent top safety managers out to take a closer look at the data and make sure all airlines' planes are structurally sound.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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