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Southwest Airlines grounds part of its fleet

  Last week, Southwest was fined more than 10 million dollars to penalize inspection lapses; days later it found another inspection problem and grounded 38 jets.

     What a shock.  The cheap air fares symbolized by Southwest Airlines may have been a product of neglecting safety expenses and procedures.  Maybe when you cut costs there is a tendency to cut value.  Maybe deregulation also means de-safety.  And, oh, by the way, where was the FAA?

     The grounded planes were not an exotic import; they were Boeing 737s.  Southwest was fined for continuing to fly 46 old 737s when it knew they should have been inspected for cracks in the fuselage airframe.  Cracks were found in six of these aircraft when they finally were inspected after Southwest's "deliberate violation" [flying the planes after it became aware that they were well overdue for inspection].  Investigation in Congress suggested that an FAA inspector may even have colluded in allowing Southwest to fly the jets that were overdue for inspection.  An FAA spokeswoman confirmed "at least one FAA inspector looked the other way.  That's wrong and inexcusable".

    The inspection takes about 90 minutes and includes visual and electronic components.  Authorities said that while airline inspection regulations can generate mounds of paperwork and be very complicated, the unusual component of the Southwest controversy was that "it went on for months".  The 46 over-age airplanes were flown illegally from June of 2006 to March of 2007.  In the New York Times' account of the incident, there were a couple of troubling claims.  The Times claimed that experts consider Southwest to be the "best-run domestic airline".  Another commentator suggested that the FAA did not act properly with regard to Southwest because the entire culture at the FAA is "dysfunctional".

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