Southwest suspends 3 in safety probe

Southwest Airlines suspended three employees Tuesday in connection with a record $10.2 million fine issued against the carrier last week for knowingly flying jets that had not received critical safety inspections.

Two whistle-blowers have alleged that the safety problems existed for years at the carrier and that they faced retribution within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for trying to enforce regulations, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the three employees were placed on "administrative leave" based on the preliminary results of an internal investigation he had ordered.

"I am concerned with some of our findings as to our controls over procedures within our maintenance airworthiness directive and regulatory compliance processes," Kelly said in a news release.

The news release did not identify the employees or provide more specifics about what the investigation had found.

Whistle-blowers C. Bobby Boutris and Douglas Peters, both FAA inspectors, have alleged that others in the office didn't enforce federal rules, tried to block their efforts at enforcement and leaked sensitive data to the airline.

Boutris charged that two Southwest managers sought to have him removed in early 2007 from a review of the airline's safety inspections, according to his statement seeking whistle-blower protection.

Boutris was allowed to stay on the review only after appealing to a senior FAA official, he said. The review is what later prompted Southwest to discover that it had neglected to inspect at least 46 older Boeing 737s for cracks in the fuselage. The inspections were required to prevent the jet's skin from peeling back in flight, as occurred on an Aloha Airlines flight in 1988.

Southwest informed the FAA in mid-March 2007 that the jets had not been inspected. If airlines voluntarily disclose safety problems, the FAA generally waives penalties. The program requires airlines to immediately correct the problem, but Southwest continued to fly the jets for nine days, the FAA said.

The FAA announced last week that it was beginning an audit of Southwest's maintenance program. The agency has acknowledged that its employees did not act properly in the case and has reassigned two employees.

The whistle-blowers brought their concerns to the House Transportation Committee, which plans to hold a hearing April 3. The Department of Transportation's inspector general is also investigating.

Tuesday's announcement by Southwest is a marked departure from its initial reaction. The airline had insisted that it acted with the permission of the FAA and intended to fight the fine.

Kelly said Tuesday that he had hired an outside consultant to review the carrier's maintenance program, especially how it tracks critical safety inspections. He also vowed to cooperate with the FAA on its audit of the carrier.

"These are important and necessary steps," Kelly said. "We have been a safe company. I believe we are a safe company. I am committed to making sure we become safer still."