Missed airplane inspections at Southwest Airlines have sparked a far broader investigation into maintenance procedures, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday.
The FAA said it will review all airlines — more than 100 of them — to ensure they've complied with maintenance requirements. The massive effort is designed to guarantee that both airlines and the FAA are making sure planes are safe to fly.
"While the data tell us flying is safer than ever, prudence dictates we take this additional precaution and conduct a special emphasis review," acting FAA administrator Robert Sturgell said Tuesday in a statement.
As part of its far-reaching effort, FAA inspectors will review paperwork documenting maintenance records for all types of aircraft. In some cases, inspectors will examine the planes themselves. By March 28, the FAA plans to have completed its initial review.
It will follow up with a more extensive audit of 10 percent of all safety directives, slated to be finished by late June. The FAA issues rules called "airworthiness directives" to remedy unsafe conditions.
The announcement is the latest in the FAA's crackdown on carriers.
Earlier this month, the FAA announced it was proposing a $10.2 million fine on Southwest — the largest fine ever imposed against a passenger airline — because the airline failed to do required safety checks on its older 737 planes. Southwest flew 60,000 flights without the required inspections, and once the FAA learned of the missed inspections, it failed to ground the planes as required.
Last week, the airline grounded several dozen planes as both internal and external investigators further examined the airline's inspection and safety practices.
"If you follow the manual you will stay out of trouble, but sometimes the paperwork gets away," said maintenance expert John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member. "Most people don't realize how large a paperwork package comes with some of these inspections. They fill volumes and volumes."
Still, both the airlines and the FAA are under fire for recent problems, especially as the FAA increasingly relies more heavily on overseeing airline safety systems rather than watching inspections themselves.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were quick to question the FAA's role in the problem.
"The fact that the FAA now feels the need to double check its work raises a lot of questions that the American people deserve answers to," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement. Murray is chairman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.
Likewise, senior member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said in a statement, "I strongly recommend that, while the FAA looks into the air carriers it is charged with regulating, it also examine the adequacy of its own oversight activities.
"Southwest never should have been out of compliance with any directive in the first place, and we must get to the bottom of how this was allowed to happen — particularly when it appears that FAA personnel were aware of the non-compliance."
Both Senate and House panels have plans to further examine the issue next month.
Meantime, John Nance, former pilot and ABC aviation consultant, said fliers should not worry.
"I see absolutely no reason for travelers to be concerned about the safety of 737s in any way, form or fashion," Nance said. "Especially in terms of aging aircraft."