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Southwest facing suit over planes

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Four passengers have filed a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines, saying the company broke its contract with travelers by carrying them on planes that missed safety inspections over a period of about six years.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court in Birmingham, Ala., seeks class-action status on claims that include breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and negligent and reckless operation of an aircraft.

Lew Garrison, a Birmingham lawyer who represents the passengers, said Tuesday the class could include hundreds of thousands of people who traveled on Southwest planes from January 2002 through last month.

Garrison, in a telephone interview, said the lawsuit primarily seeks reimbursement for tickets for those flights on the grounds that the Dallas-based airline did not comply with government regulations and did not honor its contract with its customers.

The suit also seeks punitive damages on one count that claims Southwest behaved negligently in not grounding planes that had not been deemed airworthy in compliance with government standards, Garrison said.

The amount of damages was not specified.

Marilee McInnis, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

“Fortuitously, of course, nothing happened, everyone arrived safely at their destinations,” Garrison said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Southwest did not comply with its obligations.”

Federal regulators said last month that Southwest operated nearly 60,000 flights in 2006 and 2007 using 46 planes that had missed inspections for possible fatigue-related cracking on the fuselage areas.

The airline flew another 1,451 flights with the same planes in March 2007, even after discovering that it had failed to conduct the required inspections, the FAA charged. The federal agency proposed a $10.2 million penalty; all but $200,000 of the proposed penalty dealt with those later flights. Southwest said six of the planes had small cracks that required repairs.

The FAA had ordered airlines in September 2004 to conduct inspections of some areas of the fuselage on some older models of Boeing 737 aircraft once every 4,500 flights.

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