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Airline CEO tries to reassure public about carrier safety

Posted: Monday, March 20, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) -- Alaska Airlines' chief executive officer scrambled Monday to assure the public that no unsafe planes have been sent out from the airline's maintenance bases.

John Kelly said the public has a ''question mark'' about Alaska Airlines following the Jan. 31 crash of Flight 261 and reports that 64 mechanics wrote a letter saying they were pressured to cut corners in working on planes at the carrier's maintenance facility here.

''There have been no -- absolutely no -- aircraft that have ever been released to service in an unairworthy condition,'' he told reporters at a news conference Monday.

The workers, in a letter delivered Thursday to Kelly and airline President Bill Ayer, said they felt ''pressured, threatened and intimidated'' by the maintenance-base manager, Robert Falla, and said he had demanded that worn parts not be replaced.

Kelly denied that management had ordered any cutbacks in maintenance spending.

So far, he said, 51 of the 64 letter signers -- but not Falla -- had been interviewed by airline maintenance executives, along with representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration.

''When we asked them specifically they could not tell us what they were directed to do that was unsafe,'' Kelly said. None has said any aircraft were returned to service in an unsafe condition or in violation of any federal regulations, Kelly said.

Although he did not mention Falla by name, Kelly characterized the workers' complaints as conflicts over Falla's management style.

''They don't agree with him and they don't like his style,'' he said.

Falla was placed on administrative leave Friday. His attorney has said he never knowingly allowed any unsafe aircraft to go into service, and will be fully exonerated.

Alaska's maintenance costs have risen 200 percent in the past five years although the number of airplanes has grown only 25 percent, Kelly said.

He bristled at suggestions that management, faced with rising costs, might pressure a middle manager to keep maintenance costs down.

''Come on, give me a break, why would we do something like that? It makes no sense whatsoever,'' he said, adding that the airline has increased the number of mechanics per aircraft and purchased expensive equipment to increase safety.

Kelly announced three initiatives to improve public confidence in Alaska Airlines:

--A full and complete audit of all operations by outside safety professionals who will report to him. ''If there is anything they find that needs to be fixed, believe me, we will fix it,'' he said.

--Appointment of an airline vice president for safety.

--Establishment of a hotline so employees with safety concerns can call him directly.

Alaska has said it would immediately ground any planes found to be potentially unsafe. Such action has not been deemed necessary so far.

Kelly said he had no knowledge that FBI agents who had been working with the National Transportation Safety Board on a probe of Alaska's maintenance facility in Oakland, Calif., had begun a separate criminal probe related to the crash of Flight 261, as The Seattle Times reported Saturday.

''I don't know if that's true or not,'' Kelly said.

No criminal wrongdoing has been established in connection with the Jan. 31 crash off the coast of California that killed 88 people, the Times said.

The criminal investigation grew out of a 15-month-old inquiry into Alaska maintenance practices at the Oakland base, the Times said. A grand jury in San Francisco is investigating whether supervisors signed for repairs that weren't done or that they weren't authorized to approve.

The Times reported that the mechanics' letter was triggered by concerns over a recent repair to the horizontal stabilizer and jackscrew assembly on an MD-80 jetliner. Airline spokesman Jack Evans said the letter did not mention a specific repair.

The cause of the Jan. 31 crash has not been determined. Federal authorities have focused on the horizontal stabilizer in their investigation.

Flight 261, a Boeing MD-83 jetliner, was headed to San Francisco and Seattle from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when it tried to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles after crew members reported problems with the horizontal stabilizer.

NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said Friday that investigators had found no grease on a crucial portion of the jackscrew that helped control the movement of the jet's horizontal tail stabilizer.



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