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Official says carrier flew faulty craft

April 05, 2008

Following a multimillion- dollar fine levied against Southwest Airlines in March, a Federal Aviation Administration official told a congressional panel Thursday that Southwest knowingly flew planes that were in need of repair, and the airline’s close relationship with the FAA endangered the lives of passengers.

FAA inspector Charalambe “Bobby” Boutris, who received whistle-blower protection from Congress to expose the friendship between his supervisor, Douglas Gawadzinski, and Southwest compliance official Paul Comeau, told the panel that the relationship complicated oversight of the airline.

“Southwest Airlines knowingly hired Mr. Comeau because of his FAA connections with inspectors in our office,” Boutris said. “There is an ethics issue here and conflict of interest.”

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The result was a string of March flights in which Southwest — Bob Hope Airport’s largest carrier — knowingly operated faulty planes, he said.

“From March 15, 2007 — the date that Mr. Gawadzinski was initially informed of this noncompliance — to March 23, 2007, while Southwest was performing overdue inspections . . . records show that six aircraft had cracks in their fuselage,” said Boutris, whose office is responsible for Southwest’s safety compliance.

“Southwest continued to operate affected aircrafts in a known unsafe condition.”

The airline, which also flies out of Bob Hope Airport, was fined $10.2 million by the FAA after officials learned that Southwest flew unsafe planes. A week earlier, two of Bob Hope’s 17 scheduled Southwest Airlines flights to Oakland were canceled after a review of the airline’s maintenance records prompted 38 of its Boeing 737s nationwide to stay on the ground.

But in finding multiple fuselage cracks, some that measured up to three inches, Southwest should have grounded its damaged planes earlier, Boutris said.

“What’s also aggravating, and brings unsafe conditions to highest level of concern, is the fact that at this time of discovery, this aircraft had been flying for 30 months out of compliance with overdue inspections,” Boutris told the committee.

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