American Accused of Shoddy Maintenance

American Airlines chief Gerard J. Arpey wrote to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters that safety was never at issue.
American Airlines chief Gerard J. Arpey wrote to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters that safety was never at issue. (Ron Heflin - AP)
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

Maintenance work by American Airlines on hundreds of jets was so sloppy that it posed a safety risk -- a lapse that forced the carrier to ground many of its planes and strand hundreds of thousands of passengers last month, according to a report by federal regulators released yesterday.

"Left uncorrected, the workmanship errors would have increased the odds that [a plane] would have experienced arcing, smoke, or fire problems that have caused serious incidents and fatal accidents in the past," the Federal Aviation Administration said in the report.

Regulators added that the poor quality of the work on bundles of wires in the airline's 367 MD-80 jets "raised the specter of a cumulative safety risk."

American Airlines, in its own assessment of the situation, said that "at no time was there a safety-of-flight issue." It blamed the four days of groundings that ended April 12 on "a communication failure within the FAA and between the FAA and American."

A spokesman for the carrier took exception yesterday to the FAA's characterization of the repair work and said American's mechanics "are some of the finest in the industry."

The reports by the FAA and American represent the most thorough explanations yet of what led the airline to park its fleet of MD-80s. The groundings led to more than 3,000 flight cancellations and the stranding of about 350,000 passengers, becoming the highest-profile problem in a two-month tempest over the FAA's oversight of airline maintenance practices.

The reports were delivered on May 2 to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who last month requested more information about the groundings.

Peters said yesterday that she was going to ask the FAA and airlines to examine how they communicate in such situations to prevent similar debacles.

American grounded its MD-80s in mid-April in response to questions by FAA inspectors about whether the airline had properly inspected and repaired wire bundles in the planes' right-wheel wells. That work had been required by a safety rule that sought to mitigate the chances of sparking, fires and explosions.

The MD-80, a twin-engine jet that seats about 140 people, was manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, which later merged with Boeing.

The groundings came as the FAA was being criticized over lax oversight of airlines' compliance with safety mandates. Last year, the FAA improperly allowed Southwest Airlines to continue flying dozens of jets that were in need of safety checks. Members of Congress and outside experts have criticized the FAA over becoming too cozy with the airlines.

By late March, embarrassed by the publicity over the Southwest lapses, the FAA launched an audit of carriers' compliance with safety mandates. Inspectors chose to examine the rule requiring inspections and repairs of the MD-80s' wire bundles as part of that investigation, the FAA said.

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