NEW YORK, JULY 25 -- Passengers aboard an Eastern Air Lines flight from New York's John F. Kennedy airport to Orlando, Fla., on July 24, 1988, had no way of knowing that a routine inspection to detect cracks and damage to the engine on their aircraft was never done.

The flight landed safely. But according to a 60-count indictment returned today, those passengers were victims of an unprecedented scheme to defraud Eastern's customers by failing to perform mandatory maintenance and falsifying records to make it appear as though they had.

Among the charges are that Eastern personnel neglected to inspect engines and auxiliary power units, to change engine fuel filters, to lubricate the main landing gear and screws on wing flaps, or to check for water or contaminants that may have seeped into fuel tanks.

In each case, the indictment charges, the work was recorded as having been performed and the aircraft were sent into the skies.

At New York's La Guardia Airport, Eastern employees failed to check the fuel tanks on every single plane staying at the airport on 16 separate nights between Dec. 1, 1987, and March 13, 1988, according to the indictment.

Instead, the employees wrote in their records that the temperature, well above freezing those nights, was too cold to do the required "sumping," a procedure in which the fuel tank ischecked for water or contaminants that may have seeped in. Sumping is done to avoid faulty fuel gauge readings and to prevent engine problems that may develop when water or ice get into a plane's fuel lines.

Failure to sump "could result in fuel starvation and possibly the motor going out because it wouldn't be getting the proper fuel," said one Federal Aviation Administration official who asked to remain anonymous. "That could be serious."

At Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, the indictment alleges, maintenance workers installed crucial electrical cockpit components they knew were defective or untested.

A number of Eastern aircraft that flew from July through September 1988 to Orlando, Fla., Hartford, Conn., Bermuda, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and La Guardia in New York had not been maintained to FAA standards, the indictment charges.

The FAA was unaware of the wrongdoing because Eastern managers apparently signed fictitious names or forged other employees' names to records and log books guaranteeing that the maintenance had been performed, a fraudulent practice known in the industry as "pencil whipping."

In addition, the defendants are alleged to have entered information into a computer at Eastern headquarters in Miami, recording maintenance that was never done. Since the computer would not schedule the work again until another full period had passed, Eastern aircraft were at times allowed to operate twice as long as they should have been before being checked for certain maintenance operations.

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