Japan Air System finishes emergency inspections, still to ground 59 more flights

Wednesday, January 21st 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan Air System canceled 59 flights scheduled for Thursday after finding cracks in the U.S.-manufactured engines of nearly all its MD-80 series aircraft.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it was closely monitoring the situation and that the problem appears to be limited to the JAS fleet. Several U.S. carriers fly MD-80s.

The Seattle Times, meanwhile, quoted American Airlines officials as saying similar problems previously affected the same type of engines in their fleet.

JAS has grounded more than 200 flights since beginning emergency inspections Monday on all 25 of its MD-81 and MD-87 aircraft. The review, prompted by two cases of engine trouble earlier this month, was completed on Wednesday.

Eighteen of the 25 planes were found to have cracks in their engines, 16 of which remained out of service.

With two-thirds of its domestic fleet still grounded, the airline said it would have to cancel 59 flights Thursday, affecting some 4,400 passengers. Nine planes would be in service, including two that had had faulty engines replaced, the airline said in a statement.

The cause of the cracks has not been determined but JAS has asked the manufacturer to investigate, said spokesman Tomonari Sato. Earlier, JAS said the design may be faulty.

The engines were produced by Pratt & Whitney, based in Hartford, Conn. A Pratt & Whitney spokesman said its engineers have been dispatched to Japan and are also working on the problem at the company's Connecticut headquarters.

``We are working with JAS to understand what the problem they seem to have is and get their fleet back in operation,'' Pratt spokesman Mark Sullivan said Wednesday. ``We've seen these kinds of problems periodically in the past.''

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency is working closely with Japan's civil aviation authorities, Pratt & Whitney and U.S. carriers that fly MD-80s, such as American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

``The preliminary information indicates that this is limited to the JAS fleet and is not typical of worldwide experience,'' Dorr said.

``If we need to take some safety action, whatever that might be, we would not hesitate,'' he added.

American Airlines discovered five similar cracks on MD-80 engines in the past nine years, The Seattle Times reported. It does not consider them a major concern but has requested more information, the newspaper quoted American Airlines spokesman John Hotard as saying.

``We are still awaiting word from Pratt & Whitney on exactly what JAS has experienced,'' Hotard reportedly said. ``We need to know more about these cracks and exactly where these cracks are located.''

Maintenance personnel at Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, which operates 27 MD-80s, have not found any MD-80 engine cracking problems, spokesman Lou Cancelmi told The Times.

Pratt & Whitney ``has not indicated any need for us to adjust our existing maintenance procedures or conduct any special inspections,'' Cancelmi added.

On Jan. 6, an MD-81 had to abort its takeoff at Fukuoka airport in southern Japan due to vibrations in an engine. A MD-87 returned to Kagoshima airport, in southern Japan, the next day after developing a similar problem.

Inspections of the two planes turned up cracks in a compressor in their engines. Subsequent checks on all JAS aircraft of the same type turned up additional cracks and, in some cases, missing blades. Officials had said cracks or missing blades in the compressor can cause a plane's engine to vibrate, lose power, or even stop.

The affected aircraft were produced by McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing Co. in 1997. JAS uses the aircraft only for domestic flights.

JAS and Japan Airlines set up a holding company, Japan Airlines System Corp., in October, 2002, and were to merge their flight operations in April this year.