Southwest CEO on Airline's Safety

This is a tale of Southwest Airlines. Actually, it's two tales of Southwest Airlines -- two stories that may pull your image of the company in opposite directions.

One story has caused high anxiety these last few days. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Tuesday that three employees will be placed on administrative leave as part of the airline's response to an internal investigation into claims it violated Federal Aviation Administration regulations regarding airline inspections on 46 Boeing 737s in 2007.

The FAA is fining Southwest $10.2 million, the biggest fine ever slapped on any U.S. airline. Southwest has 30 days to decide if it will challenge the FAA's findings or penalty.

As part of its internal investigation, Southwest is also inspecting 44 jets. Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford told ABC News in a statement that "out of an abundance of caution, we began re-inspecting 44 aircraft last night ... and we are returning the aircraft to service as the inspections are complete."

These inspections are separate from those involved in the FAA dispute, and Rutherford said the airline disclosed the groundings to the FAA last night.

"We are taking the strictest approach on this," she said.

"We have been a safe company," Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement today. "I believe we are a safe company. I am committed to making sure we become safer still."

"Nightline" set out to tell another story about Southwest, the all-too-rare story of a U.S. airline that has been so successful, so profitable, so relentlessly cheery that practically no one who works at the airline ever quits.

An annual employees meeting, officially called Message to the Field, had overtones of a revival meeting or love-in. In fact, L-U-V is Southwest's stock symbol.


Watch the story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

All Is Well?

Kelly is the deliverer of the Message to the Field, and he is a man so unflappably, understatedly self-confident and so dedicated to Southwest's spirit of fun that to amuse his workers this past Halloween he came to work dressed in … a dress.

"You know, I've lived 52 years without cross-dressing and then, you know, I finally succumbed to that," Kelly said when we visited Southwest's corporate headquarters in Dallas. "It was a lot of fun. I tell you what. I was a giant woman, my hair up to here. And so it was an interesting experience."

The next day Kelly was back to being himself, with a little less hair.

"I did shave my legs," he said. "And so everything wasn't quite back to the way I was before, but months later, all is well."

"I do sort of feel like the mother of the 34,000 kids," said Colleen Barrett, the company's president. "And I love it when I get letters or testaments, testimonials to this effect constantly. I will hear from mothers that will say I believe that Southwest Airlines turned my son into a man. I believe without Southwest Airlines my daughter wouldn't be working anywhere, let alone at an airline."

That was earlier this week, and we said thanks and packed up and brought home this story of the airline that seems to do everything right.

Two days later, the story changed, and Gary Kelly, he of the Halloween costume, suddenly looked like a leader in need of armor in light of the FAA allegations and their impact.

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