Even daily readers of West Coast newspapers may have trouble keeping up with the latest developments at beleaguered Alaska Airlines. Their confusion is understandable. The carrier has been under intense scrutiny since one of its MD-80s fell nose-first into the Pacific on Jan. 31.
Even before Flight 261 crashed, the federal government already was making criminal inquiries into maintenance practices at the airline, which is owned by Alaska Air Group. The disaster pushed government investigators into overdrive, where they remain today.
Alaska Airlines has been under grand jury review since late 1998. It began when a lead mechanic at the airline went to the federal government in October of that year with safety concerns. He alleged that some supervisors signed off on maintenance work that wasn't done or that they lacked certification to approve -- and that a senior executive brushed him off when apprised.
The previous month, Alaska Airlines agreed to pay the federal government $338,000 to settle charges that it allowed a Boeing 737 in June 1996 to make 70 takeoffs and landings without required hydraulic gear.
What is happening now?
The criminal investigation of maintenance practices that began in 1998 has reportedly been expanded from California to the company's Washington base near the Seattle-Tacoma airport.
The Jan. 31 tragedy is now reportedly the subject of its own separate criminal investigation by officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Alaska Airlines spokesman Greg Witter said Monday this claim by The Seattle Times has not been verified or denied by federal officials.
In April, a 15-member team with the Federal Aviation Administration initiated a ''white-glove'' inspection of Alaska Airlines' operations in Seattle and Oakland. The operations review revealed that ''records didn't match up with the work'' on two planes, according to an FAA spokesman. In those cases, inspectors couldn't tell from paperwork whether required tasks had been completed.
The FAA inspection has led to a more intense study of the airline's fleet. That review of heavy-maintenance records of 81 of the airlines' 89-plane fleet is under way and should be done early this month.
Also in April, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the FBI has begun a preliminary inquiry into whether the FAA allowed or ignored illegal maintenance practices at Alaska Airlines. Mr. Witter dismissed such charges as ''complete and utter nonsense.'' The newspaper earlier filed a copyright story that said FAA officials who cracked down on the airline for maintenance and paperwork violations were disciplined or removed from their jobs.
Now, more than two years after an airline whistle-blower stepped forward with charges of crime and subterfuge, the fallout continues. Mechanic John Liotine has since been bounced from the presidency of his local union and remains on paid leave. Meanwhile, relatives and friends of loved ones aboard Flight 261 must wonder anew with each development whether Alaska Airlines did all that it could to keep 88 crew members and passengers from harm.
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