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Alaska Air's power to repair fleet at risk

Updated:
The Federal Aviation Administration plans to revoke Alaska Airlines' authority to maintain its airplanes after finding serious shortcomings in the airline's maintenance program.

The revocation could eventually force the airline to shut down as one plane after another comes due for maintenance and must be parked, officials said

"We have serious concerns about critical processes, including management effectiveness," said Nick Lacey, director of flight standards for the FAA.

The Seattle-based airline, which operates 89 jetliners, has seven days to provide a plan that might head off the proposed action. If that plan is inadequate, the airline will not be able to perform any heavy maintenance work after 30 days because the FAA will close the company's maintenance hangars in Oakland, Calif., and Seattle.

"If we shut the doors, the airline cannot send the airplanes elsewhere for maintenance," FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said. "The airline will have to prove to us that they can put processes in place that are not there now."

The FAA began a detailed safety inspection of Alaska Airlines' maintenance operation after the Jan. 31 crash of Flight 261 in the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles. All 88 people aboard the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 were killed.

FAA officials made no connection between the maintenance inspection and the crash, which is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and a grand jury.

The FAA allows most airlines to farm out maintenance work to contractors as long as airline officials ensure that the work was properly done. Because Alaska Airlines was not following its own procedures, FAA officials said they could not expect the airline to adequately supervise the work of a contractor.

John Kelly, chairman and CEO of the airline, said that Alaska Airlines has cooperated with the FAA and that he is confident the airline will find a way to keep its maintenance bases open.

"I fully expect we'll be able to show that we can execute on a long-term basis," Mr. Kelly said. "What we are going to do is view this as an opportunity to just get better and better."

The proposed shutdown of the maintenance bases is the strongest action taken by the FAA against any airline for maintenance problems since the FAA briefly grounded ValuJet Airlines in June 1996 for a variety of safety concerns, including problems with the airline's outside maintenance contractors.

Shares of Alaska Airlines fell 4 percent on the news, falling $1.1875 and closing at $30.75 on the New York Stock Exchange.

FAA officials said a detailed safety inspection of Alaska Airlines found about 150 instances in which maintenance work could not be documented, even though subsequent checks showed that the work had been done.

"It's more than a paperwork problem," Mr. Lacey said. "It's serious that the company did not pick up on these problems. Aircraft accidents result from a series of small errors."

He said that the FAA's investigation is continuing and that civil fines could be announced in coming weeks.

In addition, before the airline is allowed to add planes to its fleet, it must submit a detailed growth plan that outlines how officials intend to maintain additional airplanes. The airline is scheduled to take delivery of 19 new Boeing 737s over the next two years.

The Jan. 31 crash occurred when a key component in the airplane's horizontal stabilizer assembly apparently failed.

That part, a 2-foot threaded rod called a jackscrew, was recovered from the crash site with metal shavings wrapped around its threads.

Crash investigators later found that in 1997, a mechanic in Oakland had recommended replacing the part because it was worn out. However, a supervisor ordered further testing in which the assembly was found to be just inside the federally approved limits for wear on that part, which allowed it to remain on the airplane unchecked for the next three years.

Airline and safety experts said the FAA's announcement could be a serious blow to Alaska's reputation, which has been under increasing scrutiny for the last three years.

In addition to the crash, federal investigators have been looking into allegations that airline managers in Oakland signed off on maintenance work that was never performed.

Earlier this week, the airline said it would fire two pilots who continued a flight in March after they failed to pressurize their plane and compounded the mistake by climbing to 41,000 feet after emergency oxygen masks had popped out and some passengers were complaining of medical problems.

"No airline is perfect, but when you look at the kind of problems Alaska has been having, they are symptomatic with an airline that does not have an adequate safety organization," said C.O. Miller, a former top accident and safety investigator for the government.

For the next 30 days, Alaska Airlines will be allowed to continue heavy maintenance on its fleet under the supervision of FAA inspectors.

At any given time, between four and six airplanes are in heavy maintenance.

After 30 days, the FAA will pull its inspectors out of the hangars and force the airline to shut down its heavy maintenance until officials can demonstrate that they have procedures that will ensure that maintenance is done properly.

The airline would be allowed to continue operating, but each time a plane is scheduled for major maintenance, it must be parked.

"What you would see is a gradual shrinking of the airline," Mr. Takemoto said.

According to FAA officials, inspectors found a number of shortcomings, including:

The airline did not have adequate procedures to make sure that required maintenance had been done to airplanes before they were released into service.

Procedures for conducting in-depth inspections of the aircraft were not adequately defined in company procedure manuals.

Audits conducted by the airline failed to detect and correct problems within the maintenance organization.

Repair of inoperative aircraft systems and components were improperly delayed.

Aircraft records could not be used to confirm that requirements had been met.

Two individuals, one for base maintenance and one for line maintenance, shared the required position of director of maintenance.

Mr. Kelly, the airline's chairman, said during a news briefing that he thinks the airline will meet the seven-day deadline to come up with a plan to satisfy the FAA.

"I'm pleased to say that many, if not all, of the findings the FAA outlined in its news release this morning were addressed by us over recent weeks as soon as they were raised by the FAA during its audit," he said.
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