FAA fines on airlines often not enforced in full

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An American Airlines jet, right, taxis past United Airlines and United Express jets at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago as the Willis Tower looms in the background Oct. 5, 2010.
AP Photo

NEW YORK - The Southwest Airlines incident may just be an indication of a much larger problem. It all has to do with the relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines the agency is supposed to regulate.

When an airline is caught by the agency for safety violations, the FAA often announces huge fines against that airline. But how many of those fines actually get paid?

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg reports that the FAA's system of fining airlines for maintenance problems isn't working, according to at least one former National Transportation Safety Board member.

"I don't know of a study that has ever been done by the FAA or anyone else that can correlate the fines to improving safety," former NTSB member John Goglia said.

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In 2007, the FAA found that Southwest Airlines had improperly inspected 46 of its planes for metal fatigue, and when re-inspected, all were discovered to have cracks. The FAA slapped the company with a $10.5 million fine. A year later, however, Southwest had the fine knocked down to $7.5 million. News of more cracks this week raise questions about the effectiveness of those fines.

"There is very little incentive if the airline doesn't feel the pain of the fine. The ultimate victim is safety," said ex-Rep. James Oberstar, former chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

This raises the question of how often airlines have to pay their fines in full. In a public records request, we got answers.

From 2000 and 2009, the FAA proposed fines against the major airlines 102 times. In 70 instances, those fines were reduced on appeal.

For example, when Frontier Air violated weight restrictions in 2002, they were fined $200,000. They bargained it down to $133,000. When Alaska Air was fined $500,000 for faulty exit lights, they paid only $333,000. All told, the airlines were given a nearly $7.2 million break.

The FAA said in a statement they reduce the fines when airlines present "evidence that a charge was unwarranted," and that letting airlines appeal fines is a process required by law.

Southwest has the second best safety record in the business, but the FAA's policy of allowing reduced fines raises questions about whether the skies are as safe as they can be.