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FAA Cracking Down On American And Northwest Airlines For Repeated Safety Maintenance Violations; Proposes Fines In The Millions

March is shaping up to be a rather expensive month for air carriers American and Northwest.

On March 12, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it was seeking $787,500 in fines against American Airlines stemming from three cases of alleged maintenance violations in 2008 and 2009. The first case involved the deferral of repairs to one of two Central Air Data Computers (CADC) on a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 jetliner. The American mechanics who diagnosed the problem deferred its replacement in violation of the airline's policy disallowing the deferral of replacing an inoperative CADC. The airplane wound up making 10 passenger flights before the CADC was replaced, and the flight crews on each of these flights were under the impression that the airplane's CADC's were both properly functioning.

In the second case, American allegedly flew two of four airplanes in violation of an Airworthiness Directive involving the rudders on certain Boeing 757 aircraft. Two days after stating that it would not fly the airplanes in question until the required repairs to the rudder had been made, American operated two of those Boeing 757's on a total of three passenger flights.

The third case alleged that American operated two passenger flights on an MD-82 that was returned to service without the completion of several steps of a scheduled B-check maintenance checkup. The airplane's mechanics had also replaced a landing gear door without making note of it in the MD-82's maintenance logbook. An FAA inspection of the airplane after the two flights revealed several problems in the tail section of the airplane, including loose screws, a missing nut plate and the binding of an elevator torque tube.

Six days later on March 18, the FAA announced a second round of maintenance-violation fines against American, this time proposing a $300,000 penalty related once more to American's mechanics deferring the maintenance of an MD-82. Initially, the mechanics detailed in the maintenance log a problem with the panel lighting on the "pitot/stall heater", when it was determined the next day that the problem was in fact much more serious: an inoperative pitot probe heater. Pitot probes are mounted on the outside of the airplane to measure airspeed. Since their placement on the exterior of the aircraft leaves them susceptible to freezing conditions, they are equipped with heaters to prevent icing. While American's Minimum Equipment List (MEL) allows this repair to be deferred, aircraft experiencing this problem are only allowed to fly during the daytime in optimum visual conditions, and never in the face of known icing or visible moisture. Because the mechanics logged the problem as simply an inoperative light panel, the flight crew was unaware that they were operating in violation of Federal Aviation Regulations.

Northwest Airlines, not to be outdone, was slapped with a proposed $1.45 Million fine on March 23 for operating 32 of its Boeing 747's on over 90,000 flights without making required inspections into the windshield wiring of the airplanes. An FAA Airworthiness Directive mandates inspections (and if needed, replacement) of the undersized wires in the heating systems of the windshield areas of 747's. If left uninspected or uncorrected, problematic wiring could cause overheating, smoking or fire. Maintenance instructions written by Northwest omitted the inspection requirement for the windshield and window wires on the first officer's side of the cockpit, meaning over 90,000 flights took place in violation of this important safety inspection. To add insult to injury, once Northwest had discovered its error, it revised its maintenance instructions to include inspection of the first officer's windshield area, but did not require immediate inspection. Instead, it allowed flights to proceed as normal with maintenance inspections to be scheduled at the aircraft's next overnight layover, resulting in 29 of those 32 Boeing 747's operating passenger flights while Northwest knew they were engaging in safety violations.

While announcing the fines against Northwest, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt addressed Northwest's complacence in this situation, stating "[s]afety cannot wait for the next scheduled maintenance."

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