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, 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."
The "Contract of Carriage" on Southwest's Web site states: "All transportation is sold and all carriage is performed subject to compliance with all applicable laws and governmental regulations, including those of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Transportation Security Administration, many of which are not specified herein but are nonetheless binding on Carrier and all passengers."
The lawsuit claims Southwest violated this contract by not complying with FAA airworthiness directives "to correct pressing safety risks which might not be detected through regular maintenance." It says the FAA requires planes that do not meet these directives to be grounded until compliance is reached.
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.
According to the lawsuit, the Transportation Department's inspector general said in March 2007 that Southwest had 21 key inspections that were overdue by at least five years. Gayle Douglas, a Birmingham lawyer for the passengers, said that is why the lawsuit covers flights back to 2002.
Garrison said he did not know of any other lawsuits against Southwest over the missed inspections.