Looking for answers on maintenance

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Alaska Air Flight 261 went down off the Ventura County coast nearly two months ago, killing all 88 passengers and crew aboard. Since that time, the federal investigation into the cause of the crash has focused on the MD-80 aircraft's tail stabilizer system and, more specifically, on a single jackscrew, or bolt. Was it properly maintained?

The answer still eludes investigators, but the trail seems to lead back to a long-standing question for the airline industry, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board: Do they really have a handle on the quality of aircraft maintenance conducted across the nation?

Some 64 mechanics and inspectors at a Seattle maintenance facility used by Alaska Airlines have signed a letter charging that they were ``pressured, threatened and intimidated'' to, among other things, ``put unserviceable parts'' back on airliners. The charges are just that, of course, until their truth is determined.

However, before the crash of Flight 261, federal prosecutors had already launched a grand jury probe into Alaska Air's maintenance hangar in Oakland based on allegations that mechanics there falsified safety records and allowed two planes to fly in unairworthy condition - if true, and the airline vehemently denies that it is, a violation of federal aviation regulations. To its credit, Alaska Air says it is cooperating with the FAA and hiring its own outside experts as well.

However, systemic problems in aircraft maintenance were supposed to have been addressed after the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades that killed all 110 aboard. More than 1,000 more FAA inspectors were hired, increasing the total to about 3,700, and strict new procedures were to be put in place.

Now, the FAA is ratcheting up for another another ValuJet-scale investigation. But maintenance is not a single airline's problem. Since the end of 1996, the following are part of 39 cases reviewed by The Times that have been documented in FAA records against air carriers large and small: falsification of pilot training records, pilot proficiency check forms and flight and duty records; failure to allow the FAA to inspect a repair station; the use of unqualified pilots; flying unairworthy aircraft; significant maintenance and record-keeping deficiencies, and so forth.

Punishments are weak at best. Even when caught red-handed, the airlines usually face only the FAA's small fines. Consider, for example, the $90,000 fine the FAA proposed this month against a major airline for flying an aircraft with an improperly installed wheel bearing on its landing gear. A maintenance company allegedly botched the installation and the aircraft, a Boeing 737-300, was subsequently flown 46 times before the left main inner gear and tire assembly fell off during a takeoff. Fortunately, the aircraft landed safely and no one was injured, but what exactly does that $90,000 amount to? About 978 bucks and change for each of 46 takeoffs and 46 landings, just a 10-spot per passenger for each trip.

The FAA takes pride in recent steps it has made to improve air traffic control and decrease the possibility of runway accidents. Fine, but Alaska Air has returned the flying public's focus to how well the nation's air fleet is maintained. If still more inspectors are needed, that's where the FAA's focus should be.

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