Many people including fearful fliers are perplexed over the governments fines to Southwest airline for failure to properly inspect their aircraft. Many people feel like theres' a lack of trust with the airlines & FAA.
Just yesterday, Southwest Airlines decided to ground 40 airplanes to do further inspection. Airline passengers have a right to be safe when they fly. The airlines definitely let their passengers down because they showed they will lower the bar a little to save a buck. However, I will say that Southwest Airlines is a very safe airline with a great safety record. The aviation industry has had years of excellent safety as well. But theres' always that potential of an accident. So when you lower the standards even just a little, you might not get close to crashing an airplane but you are lowering the margin of safety.
Part of the problem is the mission of the FAA is sometimes conflicting. On the one hand, they promote, & regulate aviation safety. But, also they must encourage airline commerce. This is a sharp balancing act with the FAA. The FAA assign every airline in this country with a POI Principle Operations Inspector. Their job is to make sure that specific airline is following the rules. They give routine maintenance inspections to make sure they are being safe. They also inspect pilots by giving surprise line checks to make sure they follow the standard operating procedures. But the POI inspectors must have a close relationship with their specific airline to also help it to survive providing it's a safe operation.
One of the FAA's mission is to promote aviation & commercial transport. This is the main reason why the government deregulated the airlines so they can encourage more of a free market & encourage more people to fly. The FAA will occasionally send an AD Airworthiness Directive to the airlines or aircraft manufactures' when an aircraft maintenance issue comes up. AD's are issued for defects. An AD is similar to an auto manufacturers mandatory recall. An AD is mandatory. Depending on the seriousness of the issue, the AD could extend for weeks, months,or years. If you don't fix the aircraft by the deadline of the AD then that aircraft is unairworthy.
The FAA also requires airline maintenance to give a routine operation inspection based upon the cycle of hours flown per week. This mandatory inspection varies from airline to airline. It may require an airline to inspect their aircraft every 72 hours, or once a week. Then you have write ups' that the flight crew enter in the aircraft log book. Every aircraft from a Cessna to a B-747 has an aircraft maintenance logbook. When a pilot has a problem or see a problem with the aircraft, he or she enters it in the logbook. That aircraft is now grounded into a maintenance technician clears that write up by fixing the problem & entering it next to the pilot write up in the logbook. This is done so anyone else who flys' that aircraft can clearly see that what ever write ups' there are is now closed & the aircraft is safe to fly again. Sometimes a write up could be for something simple like a replacing a light bulb. It still grounds the aircraft into a maintenance tech fixes it & signs it off.
Another maintenance check is the C check. Every airline must do this check. This check is required at a certain amount hours flown for an aircraft. Usually, it takes a few years before you are required to do a C Check. Its very expensive & detailed. They literally take the aircraft apart to check for corrosion & replace major parts. Its almost similar to you doing repair work on your car as you follow the recommended repair schedule for all new cars. They usually have a heavy maintenance check at around 60,000, 90,000,& 120,000 miles. Depending on how often you drive, these mile may take you a few years to acquire. This is similar to aircraft. The airline system is safe. There is good oversight to catch abuse. Whistleblowering is always encourage so when airlines are caught abusing the system they get slapped with huge fines.