Plan that could have shut Alaska Airlines dropped

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FAA to inspect safety programs of 9 air carriers

The Federal Aviation Administration backed off its plans to shut down Alaska Airlines' troubled maintenance program Thursday.

But investigators said they were alarmed enough by safety shortcomings at Alaska that special inspections of the nation's other nine major airlines will be conducted within 120 days to see whether similar problems exist.

Those airlines include two North Texas-based air carriers, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, as well as Delta, United, Northwest, Continental, US Airways, America West and TWA.

"Considering the problems we found at Alaska, we thought it would be prudent to go back and evaluate how the other major airlines are doing in these same areas," said Nick Lacey, director of the FAA's Flight Standards Service.

Earlier this month, the FAA notified Alaska Airlines officials that the agency planned to revoke the airline's maintenance authority after finding more than 150 serious shortcomings with record-keeping and management oversight.

Such unprecedented action would have eventually forced the airline to shut down as its fleet of 89 airplanes came due for maintenance.

Instead, FAA officials said they will continue to inspect every Alaska Airlines aircraft as it is returned to service. They will also monitor the airline's progress in making improvements in its procedures.

"We will not hesitate to take stronger action if it becomes necessary," Mr. Lacey said, adding that right now, "we have a good handle on Alaska, and Alaska has a good handle on itself."

During a telephone teleconference from Seattle, Alaska Airlines president John F. Kelly said airline officials were pleased that the FAA had accepted their plan to revamp their maintenance and safety programs.

"We tried to go above and beyond what they asked for," he said.

The airline promised to hire more than 130 mechanics – 82 of them are already on board – as well as to fill critical executive posts and revamp the way it conducts heavy maintenance.

Alaska's problems were revealed during a detailed safety inspection of maintenance operations after the Jan. 31 crash of Flight 261 in the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles.

All 88 people aboard the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 were killed 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, Calif., had recommended replacing the part because it was worn out. However, a supervisor ordered further testing that yielded results allowing it to remain on the airplane uninspected for the next three years.

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

Nevertheless, they said that the review of the airline's safety and maintenance programs raised questions within the FAA about whether similar problems could exist at other major carriers.

Mr. Lacey said that three teams of a half-dozen inspectors each would begin visiting the other airlines on July 17. He declined to say which airlines would be first on the list.

"We want to look at their internal programs," Mr. Lacey said of the other airlines. "How is the management within these companies assuring compliance to the regulations?"

For example, he said, each carrier is required to have five separate safety-related positions, including directors of safety, operations, maintenance, quality assurance and chief pilot.

He said the FAA wants to know how each of these individuals functions within the airline and how top management handles their advice or concerns.

Mr. Lacey said inspectors will look for problems, but at the same time, "if they're world-class great, everybody needs to know that."

The main objective, he said, is to make sure each airline has enough checks and balances in place to make certain that unairworthy airplanes are not flying.

Officials at the other major airlines said they welcome the safety inspections.

"We'll cooperate and show them that we go far beyond what the federal guidelines are," said Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart.

American Airlines spokesman John Hotard said the airline welcomes any inspection by the FAA.

"We think we have a good system of checks and balances in our maintenance and safety organizations," he said.

C.O. Miller, a former top federal crash investigator and an internationally recognized safety expert, applauded the FAA's decision to inspect the safety management programs.

"Hallelujah," said Mr. Miller, who has been an advocate for such inspections for more than 30 years.