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Southwest gets more time to repair planes

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[September 02, 2009]  DALLAS (AP) -- Federal officials are giving Southwest Airlines until Dec. 24 to replace unapproved parts on about 50 airplanes.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that the parts do not prevent safe operation of the planes. The jets' manufacturer, Boeing Co., had reached the same conclusion.

The FAA will let Southwest fly the planes as long as they are inspected every seven days and the unapproved parts on the wings are replaced by Dec. 24.

The planes make up about 10 percent of Southwest's fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft.

Southwest had lobbied for more time to fix the problem. The airline argued that the parts in question, which deflect hot engine exhaust away from control flaps on the wings, were scarce. Now it will get nearly four months to find replacement parts.

The FAA also directed Southwest to find and dispose of any other unapproved parts made by the same company and report results of its aircraft inspections every day.

Southwest had faced a Tuesday deadline and the threat of grounding some planes for the second time in less than two weeks. It grounded 46 planes on Aug. 22 -- the day after an FAA inspector discovered the use of the unapproved parts -- causing flight delays and some cancelations.

A maintenance company hired by Southwest used parts that hadn't been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration on more than 80 of Southwest's Boeing jets since 2006. Southwest has replaced the parts on about 30 planes.

Southwest officials portrayed the dispute with the FAA as mostly a paperwork mistake, and they moved to assure passengers their planes are safe.

Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said D-Velco, the company Southwest hired for maintenance work, farmed out some machining work to a subcontractor "without appropriate written approval from FAA. As a result, the parts are considered unapproved and must be removed regardless of their quality."

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Van de Ven said the parts had been inspected and met Boeing's requirements, but that replacing them "is the best and most reasonable manner in which to fulfill the FAA's mandate."

Mike Overly of the Aviation Safety Institute said unapproved parts can be good parts missing paperwork, or they can be hard-to-trace parts made in countries with little or no safety regulation.

"The inspection and parts issues are a shame for Southwest, which currently has a zero-onboard fatality record and should be working hard to maintain it," Overly said.

Southwest suspended the maintenance company that did the repair work, D-Velco, a unit of aviation parts maker Northstar Aerospace. D-Velco hired a subcontractor to make the exhaust-gate assemblies, but the subcontractor's parts weren't approved by the FAA.

The incident raised fresh concerns about maintenance at Dallas-based Southwest, which agreed in March to pay $7.5 million to settle FAA allegations that it operated nearly 60,000 flights using jets that had not been inspected for structural cracks as required.

In June, a Southwest jet had to make an emergency landing when a foot-long hole opened in the roof. There were no injuries.

[Associated Press; By DAVID KOENIG]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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