Southwest Airlines Co., the largest low-fare carrier, suspended a maintenance vendor linked to the use of unauthorized parts in 82 Boeing Co. 737 aircraft.
The airline and the Federal Aviation Administration failed to reach an agreement on resolving the issue today, said Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Southwest. Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesman, said the agency expects to have an accord by its deadline of 5 p.m. Dallas time tomorrow.
While the airline, the FAA and Boeing have said the parts don’t present a safety risk, U.S. regulations prohibit planes from being flown with pieces made without federal certification. The components may have been on some aircraft as long as three years, according to Southwest.
“They have, albeit potentially inadvertently, violated the regulations by using unauthorized parts,” Jon Ash, president of consulting firm InterVistas-GA2 in Washington, said in an interview. “At the end of the day, I suspect they’ll receive a fine. That is a given.”
Lunsford said that “Southwest has said all along it wants to be able to replace these parts while continuing to fly its airplanes. We are working to see if there’s a way of making that happen and do it within the regulations.”
The FAA earlier let Southwest continue temporarily operating the planes, while the two sides began talks Aug. 22 on a schedule and method for replacing the parts. Southwest already has made the replacements on 30 jets.
“We are still optimistic the FAA will agree that we have proposed an aggressive timeline to address the regulatory non- compliance in a safe manner,” Harbin said.
Without an agreement with the FAA, any Southwest jet flown with the unauthorized parts would violate a federal order and the airline may face a fine of as much as $25,000 a flight, Lunsford said earlier today.
The problem was discovered Aug. 21, after an FAA inspector monitoring work at a Southwest maintenance subcontractor found irregularities in paperwork for some parts. The inspector determined the subcontractor made hinge fittings for a system that moves hot air away from flaps on the rear of wings when they’re extended, work it wasn’t authorized by the FAA to do.
Southwest suspended D-Velco Aviation Services of Phoenix, the company that hired the subcontractor, as one of its maintenance vendors, Harbin said. The subcontractor that made the fittings has not been named. The 82 planes represent 15 percent of Southwest’s 544-jet fleet.
The inquiry focuses more attention on aircraft at Southwest. The airline in March agreed to pay a $7.5 million fine, the largest penalty collected by the FAA, for flying jets without fuselage inspections in 2006 and 2007. In July, a foot- wide hole opened in the fuselage of a Southwest jet, forcing an emergency landing.
AMR Corp.’s American Airlines scrubbed 3,300 flights and stranded 360,000 passengers last year after the FAA required wiring inspection and repairs on 300 Boeing MD-80s. American grounded almost half its fleet after the FAA found the airline hadn’t secured wiring bundles in accordance with an agency directive.
At Southwest, “the safety of the parts is not the issue,” Harbin said. “What is at issue is that there is no established protocol to remedy a situation where you have perfectly safe parts, deemed so by the aircraft manufacturer, that have to be removed and replaced.”
Because the parts are no threat to the airline’s safety, the FAA probably will give the company “a reasonable period of time” to replace the unauthorized parts, Ash said. The most recent issue shouldn’t raise alarms about Southwest’s safety, he said. With 544 planes, such incidents will occur “from time to time,” Ash said.
The FAA may decide that the parts need to be replaced immediately or that they can remain in use until the normal schedule for replacement, Lunsford said. It’s too early to say whether Southwest might face fines over the components, he said.