WASHINGTON - After the recent Alaska Airlines crash, airlines quickly embraced a federal order to inspect a suspect part on hundreds of jetliners, saying that the reviews should ease any concern among the flying public.
But nine months earlier, when the Federal Aviation Administration ordered airlines to inspect another part of the same stabilizer mechanism on MD-80s, the response was much less enthusiastic. Several airlines complained that the inspections would be too burdensome - and too costly - and they pushed for less-demanding inspections.
The FAA ordered the inspections anyway to check for corrosion on the stabilizer hinges. However, the agency gave airlines 18 months - until later this year - to complete the work and did not accelerate the inspections even after the crash inquiry focused on the horizontal stabilizer. In addition, it turned down a recent offer from Alaska Airlines to speed up its own inspections.
Questions surrounding the stabilizers have revived long-standing concerns inside and outside the government that the FAA may be too lax in policing the airline industry. The issue for years has put the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board at odds.
Although the crash remains under investigation by the NTSB, officials say they have found no evidence that problems with the hinges caused it.
Although they emphasize that air safety is always the top priority, FAA officials say that they also must consider the financial and operational strains that government-ordered inspections can place on the airlines. Economics ``is a factor, but it's a much smaller factor compared to safety,'' said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. ``If safety is at all compromised, it's immediately addressed.''
Critics say that the FAA's swiftness in ordering jackscrew inspections after the Jan. 31 Alaska Airlines crash has only pointed up the agency's vexing hesitation to promptly tackle other problems, such as the stabilizer hinges on the same planes.
``Their mandate at the FAA is safety, but I think sometimes it's very difficult for them to require something if the industry is opposed to it,'' said Barry Sweedler, director of safety recommendations at the NTSB. ``Sometimes there are other pressures that come to bear.''
From smoke detectors to runway safeguards, critics say, the FAA has been too slow in addressing safety concerns, and sometimes has taken action only after tragedy struck.
Some fear that flaws in the MD-80s' stabilizer system may prove the latest example.
``The unfortunate part is that (the review of the stabilizers) is being done after the fact,'' following the crash and several subsequent emergency landings involving stabilizer problems, said C.O. Miller, former chief of aviation safety at the NTSB. ``We should be seeing more of this by the FAA ahead of time.''
The airlines have completed more than 1,000 emergency inspections on the jackscrews of the stabilizer system - which controls the up-and-down pitch of the plane's nose and has become the focus of the Alaska Airlines investigation.
But the FAA adopted a more drawn-out schedule for inspections on a second part of the stabilizer.
The FAA first became aware in March 1998 of potential problems with the hinges for the horizontal stabilizers, with three industry operators reporting eight instances of corrosion, according to agency records. The FAA concluded that corrosion-resistant cadmium had been applied to the hinges in an unapproved manner during manufacturing, potentially causing corrosion that could result in broken hinges.
Fourteen months later, in May 1999, the FAA ordered the airlines to inspect the hinges on more than 700 MD-80 and DC-9 series aircraft, and repair or replace any parts with corrosion. Left unchecked, the FAA said, the problem ``could result in the reduced structural integrity of the airplane'' because of excessive stress on the stabilizer mechanism.
The FAA gave the airlines a year and a half - until November 2000 - to carry out the one-time inspections.
This is a longer compliance period than for many of the several hundred other mandatory ``airworthiness directives'' that the FAA issues each year, the agency acknowledges. But several airlines and a leading industry group complained before the order's finalization last year that it imposed an ``unnecessary burden.''
With more than 100 hours of labor required per plane, ``the one-time inspection alone will cost (American Airlines) $2.2 million,'' the airline said in a note to the Air Transport Association obtained from FAA files. ``AA strongly disagrees with the 18-month compliance time.''
Some airlines proposed, as an alternative, that they could make visual inspections within 18 months but would be given up to six years to make more thorough inspections.
The FAA imposed the 18-month deadline, which would allow airlines to complete the work during their next major maintenance service, rather than schedule a special inspection.
Interviews indicate few airlines have finished their hinge inspections.
USAirways, for instance, has started or completed inspections on a third of its 15 MD-80s. TWA has inspected about a third of its 102 planes affected by the order. And American has inspected fewer than half of its 284 MD-80s, finding excessive corrosion in several hinges that were repaired or replaced.
Most airlines would not discuss details of their inspections but said they had found corrosion in relatively few aircraft and corrected the problems.
``From what we have found inspecting our aircraft, we don't see a need to speed that process ... (but) we'll certainly have it done'' by the November deadline, said American spokesman John Hotard.
Officials at Alaska Airlines took a different tack. After the crash of Flight 261, airline executives considered speeding up the inspection of stabilizer hinges as a precaution, spokesman Jack Evans said.
``We've asked the appropriate federal authorities if we need to accelerate the checks, but we've been told that is not needed, and there is no indication that is the problem,'' Evans said.
``It's possible'' that the hinge plates in the stabilizer may have factored into the accident, he added, ``but at this point we just don't know.''
The pilots on the ill-fated flight reported a ``jam'' in the horizontal stabilizer, limiting their control of the plane before it crashed, killing 88 people. Investigators later found that metal slivers were stripped from the gimbal nut, which rides the 22-inch-long jackscrew that raises and lowers the front edge of the stabilizer.
Some aviation experts have theorized that corroded hinges could contribute to a breakdown in the stabilizer system. The stabilizer hinges on the plane that recently crashed had not yet been inspected.
But FAA officials, while not ruling out any possibilities, said they have found no evidence to support that theory, and see no need to ask the airlines to speed up their inspections of the stabilizer hinges.
Responding to long-standing criticisms of the FAA, Congress enacted a key reform in 1996 when it established air safety as the agency's primary mandate and ended its role in promoting civilian air travel. Critics say that eliminated a built-in conflict, but the agency has remained too sluggish and disorganized to effect needed change.
Such criticisms have been raised for years by the NTSB, which investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations.
``We've made numerous recommendations to the FAA to do things in a certain time frame, and generally they can never seem to get things done in that time frame,'' said Sweedler, the NTSB safety director.