Alaska Airlines probe includes review of FAA oversight

Posted: Thursday, April 13, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) -- Federal Aviation Administration oversight of Alaska Airlines has come under scrutiny in an investigation into the crash of Flight 261 and the company's maintenance operations, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported Thursday.

Citing unnamed criminal justice and aviation industry sources, the newspaper's copyright article said that aspect of the probe appeared to be in a preliminary stage.

''The question right now is how broad is it (the investigation) going to be,'' a federal source was quoted as saying. ''Is FAA in bed with Alaska?''

The question for investigators is whether the company encouraged criminally wrong maintenance practices that were allowed or ignored by the FAA.

In a related development, The Seattle Times reported Thursday that a top Alaska Airlines maintenance manager, the subject of a letter by 64 mechanics who wrote that he threatened and pressured them to cut corners, has been reassigned.

Robert Falla, previously the supervisor for several hundred mechanics as overseer of maintenance operations in Seattle, is being moved next week to a nonsupervisory job as company representative to a maintenance contractor, Alaska Airlines spokesman Greg Witter said.

Falla was placed on paid leave after the letter was delivered to Alaska Airlines management last month. Witter said a preliminary inquiry by the FAA and the company showed no unsafe planes were released for service. He also denied that Falla's reassignment was a demotion.

Company and FAA officials told the P-I they did not know about the FAA coming under FBI scrutiny in the investigation, which stems partly from the crash in which 88 people died on Jan. 31.

''We have no information of any kind of investigation into FAA oversight of Alaska by the FBI,'' said Mitch Barker, an FAA spokesman in Renton.

Any accusations of an improper relationship between the company and the regulatory agency are ''baseless,'' Witter said.

''People who choose to hide behind the cloak of anonymity when making such serious charges need to be asked what their real agenda is, because it clearly has nothing to do with safety or the truth,'' Witter said.

The Alaska Airlines maintenance probe dates back to at least December 1998, when federal investigators seized company records in Seattle and at its maintenance hangar in Oakland, Calif.

The grand jury investigation was later expanded to cover the circumstances around the crash, and this week FBI agents interviewed some Alaska Airlines mechanics who work in Seattle.

In interviews published by the P-I last year, some FAA inspectors assigned to Alaska Airlines said they were penalized by supervisors when they were strict in enforcing federal regulations, sometimes being reassigned to other jobs after airline managers or pilots complained about them.

One inspector, Lester Martin, was the FAA's principal overseer of Alaska Airlines operations for a total of one day in 1997.

Testifying in a later arbitration hearing, Martin said that his only act on that day was to write a letter asking whether 10 Alaska Airlines pilots had received flight checks as required.

A supervisor prevented the letters from being sent and replaced Martin with another FAA staffer as acting chief overseer, Martin said.

He testified that after a few more weeks of work on the FAA's Alaska Airlines team, he was told by a supervisor ''that I was too hard on Alaska ... I -- how did he phrase it? --'My future would be better with (another airline).'''

The Seattle Times quoted an unidentified mechanic as saying an FBI agent and investigator for the Transportation Department's inspector general asked him whether an FAA report on his statement about the letter was accurate.

The mechanic said he replied that the report indicated he merely answered no when asked whether unsafe planes were released, rather than including his complaints that Falla had made it difficult to meet safety requirements.

''Where I elaborated and mentioned specific things, none of that was recorded,'' the mechanic said.

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