SEATTLE - An Alaska Airlines engineer has been removed from a panel investigating the crash of Flight 261 because National Transportation Safety Board officials felt he was hindering the probe, a newspaper reported today.
All 88 passengers and crew were killed when the Alaska Airlines plane slammed into the ocean off Port Hueneme, Calif., on Jan. 31, 2000, on a flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle.
The removal of Eiji Sugi, one of a number of Alaska Airlines employees assigned to work groups investigating various aspects of the crash, arose from a dispute over grease used to lubricate a key steering mechanism in the MD-83 jet, The Seattle Times reported.
The newspaper reported that the National Transportation Safety Board rarely removes people from a crash investigation panel.
Sources said Sugi's dismissal stemmed from what board officials considered an excessively aggressive effort by the airline to emphasize the possible role of Boeing-approved grease in the crash.
Alaska and Boeing are defendants in wrongful-death lawsuits stemming from the crash.
On Wednesday the safety board released a letter dated Nov. 2 from John Clark, its director of aviation safety, to Terry Clark, Alaska Airlines director of flight safety and lead representative to the crash probe.
"The safety board's investigative staff believes Mr. Sugi's participation has delayed and frustrated the Lubricating Grease Investigation Group's efforts to properly address issues related to grease," Clark wrote.
Sugi lacked "the technical expertise necessary to discuss issues. ... More importantly, his lack of expertise and failure to understand and communicate technical issues have caused unnecessary work ... and have been counterproductive to the overall efforts of the group," he added.
The move should not reflect on Sugi personally or on his competence in his field of expertise, and the panel was willing to accept another Alaska Airlines employee with a suitable background, Clark wrote.
Sugi could not be reached for comment by The Seattle Times. A call to Alaska Airlines by The Associated Press today was not returned immediately.
Alaska Airlines officials accept the action because "our representatives serve at the pleasure of the NTSB," the company said in a statement.
Airline officials have suggested that switching to AeroShell 33 grease could have caused corrosion in the 2-foot jackscrew that controls up-and-down movement in the tail wing of the twinjet.
Alaska originally used Mobilgrease 28 on MD-80-series planes as recommended by McDonnell Douglas, the plane's builder. After Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997, Alaska asked about switching to AeroShell 33, which Boeing has long recommended for its planes.
Records show Boeing experts had "no technical objection" but advised the airline to monitor the change.
In a presentation about a month ago at the board headquarters in Washington, D.C., Alaska Airlines officials "wanted to put the burden on Boeing for this grease deal," a participant who is not associated with Boeing told The Times.
Alaska Airlines began tests with the two greases last year, an action criticized by the board as a breach of protocol in the crash investigation.
The federal panel subsequently began its own grease tests, which so far have failed to indicate that corrosion related to grease could have caused the jackscrew assembly to fail, an official close to the case told The Times.