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Southwest Airlines' planes at TIA still flying

DALLAS — Southwest Airlines grounded about 40 planes overnight — about 8 percent of its fleet — in the wake of its recent admission that it had missed required inspections of some planes for structural cracks.

But it was business as usual Wednesday at Tampa International Airport, where the airline is the largest carrier.

"Locally, we're doing fine, it didn't impact our planes," said Brenda Geoghagan, spokeswoman for Tampa International Airport.

The move announced Wednesday comes as Southwest faces a $10.2-million civil penalty for continuing to fly nearly 50 planes after the airline told regulators it had missed required inspections of the planes.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which announced the penalty last week, also has come under fire for failing to immediately ground the jets when it learned they had not been inspected for fuselage cracks.

Southwest spokeswoman Christi Day said Wednesday that the move to ground the planes resulted in some flights being canceled, although she didn't have a precise figure.

March and April are the two busiest months for Tampa International Airport, Geoghagan said. Southwest offers 85 daily nonstop departures and arrivals from Tampa, 27 percent of the airport's market share.

The airline began flying out of Tampa in 1996. The carrier grew rapidly over the years by offering lower prices than other airlines.

Despite its recent troubles, Geoghagan said the airline has told TIA officials not to worry.

"They've guaranteed their schedule," she said. "Our customers are being taken care of."

The company said it had 520 Boeing 737 jets at the end of last year. Nearly 200 of them are older models, the Boeing 737-300, that were supposed to undergo extra inspections for cracks in the fuselage.

Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly had said Tuesday he was concerned by findings from an internal investigation into the missed inspections. He said the company had placed three employees on paid leave while it investigated the situation.

Acting FAA Administrator Robert A. Sturgell called the events "a twofold breakdown in the aviation system": Southwest's failure to properly inspect its planes; and the FAA's failure to ground the jets as "at least one FAA inspector looked the other way." The $10.2-million penalty is the largest the FAA has ever imposed on a carrier. Southwest has said it will appeal.

Southwest shares fell 91 cents to end at $11.49 in trading Wednesday after they earlier fell to a 52-week low of $8.87. Before Wednesday, their 52-week range was $11.02 to $16.96.

Times staff writer Nicole Hutcheson contributed to this report.

Southwest Airlines' planes at TIA still flying 03/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 12:34pm]

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