Local airline settles with FAA

L.A.B. Flying Service agrees to not fight FAA revocation of certificate

Posted: Friday, August 01, 2008

L.A.B. Flying Service Inc. won't be flying any time soon.

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Courtesy Of The Ntsb
Courtesy Of The Ntsb

In a settlement dated Wednesday, the airline agreed not to fight the Federal Aviation Administration's emergency revocation of its air carrier certificate, while the FAA agreed not to slap the airline with any more civil penalties.

The Federal Aviation Administration shut down the Juneau-based airline July 24 with an order alleging "an astounding number" of maintenance problems with its aircraft. All nine of L.A.B.'s light planes were deemed unairworthy in a June inspection. L.A.B. also kept on a mechanic who had intentionally falsified a report, the FAA said.

L.A.B. appealed on July 25 and was denied in a reply from the FAA this week.

Calls to L.A.B. and the airline's founder, Layton A. Bennett, were not answered.

The airline can reapply for its certificate in one year. In that case, it will be treated as a new application.

The agency is several months behind on processing new applications, which are its lowest priority.

FAA regulations give the agency authority to stop those who were responsible for a revocation from simply forming a new company and applying for a new certificate.

"None of us took any pleasure in doing this," said Glenn Brown, FAA senior attorney for the Alaskan Region. "They'd been in business for 50 years. It's sad. But they had an obligation to remain qualified."

Over the years, L.A.B. was cited twice for problems discovered in "normal surveillance," Brown said.

"We found things over the years that got us a little excited," he said.

But the trail of big problems that led to the emergency revocation began in December 2007.

Ironically, it started when General Manager Lynn Bennett came into an FAA office doing what he was supposed to do: showing the FAA a magneto that had suffered a catastrophic failure, Brown said.

Soon, the FAA inspector, Greg Horrell, found the company had flown with that engine part installed 679 hours past the required inspection time.

"As Greg (Horrell) starts seeing more records, he starts getting more rabbit trails," Brown said. "From December up until May, it just seemed like we were finding more things faster than we could get cases put together."

Then FAA officials happened upon a surprising event.

In late May, Horrell discovered L.A.B. mechanics installing into one of the Piper planes an engine from a plane that had burned in a fire the year before.

The fire was June 12, 2007. A pilot reported the fire on board shortly after takeoff. He returned to Kake and landed. He and passengers exited the plane safely. The Piper was destroyed.

The fire was hotter than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, judging from the fact that it burned a hole in the steel firewall and deformed the engine mounts.

"We don't know that it was melted," Brown said of the engine. "All we're saying is that with this kind of heat, you don't know whether it's been damaged. There's a strong possibility. And they're willing to put it on the plane and see if it works."

"Once we saw that, some alarm bells went off," Brown said.

Horrell asked whose idea it was to reuse the engine. Mechanics gave various answers, he reported in a declaration on Monday to the National Transportation Safety Board.

That incident triggered a rare mass assessment in June of the L.A.B. fleet, which the FAA found in a condition described in documents as "deplorable." Brown said the assessment was superficial, because FAA officials can't legally take the plane apart to look at its insides.

But they found enough on the outside to be worried and decided to go for the revocation - as quickly as they could cross all the legal t's, Brown said. That took about a month.

"As bad as things obviously were at the conclusion of the Complainant's assessments," Brown wrote in one document, "they actually became worse."

The FAA in June physically pointed out the problems with the planes to the airline's director of maintenance.

Later, the agency found that some problems were corrected; some were merely given notation "that parts were on order;" and some were "apparently ignored."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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