FAA hands threat to AK Airlines

Flights could be suspended

Posted: Friday, June 02, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators today proposed to strip Alaska Airlines of its authority to do heavy maintenance on its aircraft, a step that could lead to shutting down of the airline.

The Federal Aviation Administration said a close inspection of Alaska Airlines uncovered serious problems in its ability to document completion of work at its heavy maintenance facilities.

Nick Lacey, director of Flight Standards Service, said he has given the airline seven days to show the steps it has taken to avoid losing the maintenance authority. If that response is inadequate, Lacey said, he could suspend that authority in 30 days.

Airline officials had no immediate comment, but scheduled an afternoon news conference at the company's Seattle headquarters.

``I can't even begin to imagine the total impact that would have to Juneau,'' said Kirk Flanders, acting director of the Juneau Economic Development Council, of a possible shutdown.

``The real language I'd like to use here you couldn't print. It would be like a major public transportation strike in a city. I can't imagine what we would do.''

Alaska Airlines has been a good corporate citizen, especially in installing sophisticated guidance equipment to make takeoff and landings safer, Flanders said.

For the month of April, Alaska Airlines in Juneau enplaned 17,084 passengers, and 18,379 disembarked, according to Juneau airport secretary Pam Chapin. The 317 flights that month also brought in 649,983 pounds of freight, and shipped out 470,511 pounds, she said. Alaska Airlines brought in 83,225 pounds of mail, and shipped out 71,108 in April.

New airport manager Allan Heese said if Alaska Airlines shut down it's possible other carriers would attempt to fill the void. But they wouldn't be able to provide the same level of service anytime soon, he said.

Shares of Alaska Airlines tumbled 8 percent on the FAA's news, falling $2.563 to $29.375 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

An intense FAA inspection of the airline began after the Jan. 31 crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in the Pacific Ocean off Los Angeles, killing all 88 aboard.

Allegations of unsafe maintenance work, which first surfaced in 1998, were thrust back into the spotlight.

Lacey said the inspections found no problems in day-to-day operations but disclosed about 150 instances in which work scheduled in heavy maintenance operations could not be documented.

Re-inspections found the work had been done, he said.

But the lack of documentation indicated poor management attention to detail that concerned the regulators enough to demand changes in the airline's long-term procedures.

Heavy maintenance requires an aircraft to be removed from service for a period of time. Alaska Airlines has 89 planes in its fleet, and at any one time between four and six are undergoing this process.

Lacey said if its authority to do the work is lifted the airline would not be allowed to contract the work out. It would simply have to park planes due for maintenance, he said.

``We have serious concerns about critical processes, including management effectiveness,'' Lacey said.

However, he added, ``If we had found maintenance that was not performed, or sloppy ... we would be taking a different course. We would not hesitate to shut the airline down.''

He said the agency has sent a team of inspectors to the airline's maintenance facilities in Oakland, Calif., and Seattle and is documenting the work being done on planes now undergoing maintenance.

That means the airline can return those planes to service, and the FAA inspections will continue to make sure planes have correct maintenance procedures.

But those inspectors cannot remain there indefinitely, he said, so the agency will lift Alaska Airline's maintenance authority unless it can develop an acceptable plan and procedures to correct the problems that were found.

In addition, Lacey said, Alaska Airlines will be required to submit a growth plan to the FAA district office for any proposed expansion of its services.

The threat of losing its maintenance authority is designed to spur the airline into correcting its problems, Lacey said, and he noted that it has hired consultants to assist in making changes.

It is just the latest in a series of problems for the carrier in addition to the January crash. Others include:

A grand jury is investigating charges that airline managers in Oakland signed off on work that was never performed.

A jet was forced to land after a device that resembles a bomb and is used to test airport security was brought on board in a backpack by a 9-year-old boy who mistook it for his own pack at a security checkpoint.

A gun went off in a plane's baggage compartment, and the bullet lodged in a diaper bag under a passenger's seat.

A 6-foot-2, 250-pound passenger tried to wrestle the controls away from a pilot in flight before being tackled by other passengers.

And just this week, the airline said it would fire two pilots who continued a flight even though they had failed to properly pressurize the cabin.

Empire reporter Bill McAllister contributed to this story.



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