Report: Mechanics pressured to return faulty jets to service

Posted: Monday, May 22, 2000

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Alaska Airlines mechanics said they were pressured to return jets to service in recent years despite inspections that found further repairs were necessary, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

Several Alaska Airlines jets have gone back into the air in potentially dangerous condition since 1997 after receiving maintenance in Seattle, according to mechanic John Young.

''I know planes have gone out in unsafe condition,'' he said.

However, none of the allegations involved the Alaska plane that crashed off the Ventura County coast in January, killing all 88 people aboard, the newspaper said.

The mechanics said they told the FBI and federal regulators about the plane problems during the ongoing criminal investigation of maintenance practices at the airline.

In one case, inadequately trained personnel failed to properly deice an aircraft. Fragments of ice from the wings damaged both engines, forcing an emergency landing, the Times reported.

Other mechanics, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in April 1999 an MD-80 jetliner returned to the air despite cracks on the casing surrounding a compressor.

In another case last May, Young and two other mechanics said a Boeing 737-400 took off on a test flight with a hot-air leak in an auxiliary power unit in the tail of the aircraft.

The leak could have started a fire, but the plane weathered the test flight without incident and the problem was fixed, the mechanics said.

A federal grand jury in San Francisco has been examining the West Coast regional carrier's maintenance operation in Oakland, Calif., since 1998.

But the probe spread to Seattle in March after 64 mechanics there wrote a letter to company officials accusing a supervisor of pressuring them to ignore substandard maintenance work.

Many mechanics interviewed by the Times complained they felt pressure to put planes back in service too soon. However, only a few said they knew of planes that had left an Alaska hangar in unsafe condition.

The Times conducted dozens of interviews with Seattle-based Alaska mechanics, aviation safety consultants and federal aviation officials.

Most spoke only on condition of anonymity, out of concern they could lose their jobs.

Company officials maintained their inspection and repair practices are safe.

''We're unaware of any incident in which a plane was returned to service in an unairworthy condition or in violation of any federal aviation regulation,'' said Tom O'Grady, a vice president and deputy general counsel at the airline.

The Alaska fleet has only 84 planes. So if one jetliner is grounded for prolonged maintenance, that has a greater impact than it would on a large carrier like American Airlines, which has 648 planes.

Bill Ayer, president of Alaska Airlines, acknowledged in an interview last week that mechanics are pressured to work quickly but said the airline has ''an effective and efficient maintenance program.''

On Sunday, the Seattle Times reported that the aircraft part suspected of causing January's crash was discovered to be worn down during a 1997 inspection. However, it fell one-thousandth of an inch short of requiring regular tests, the newspaper said.

If it were not for that microscopic margin, Alaska would have been required to closely monitor the jackscrew assembly on the MD-83, the Seattle Times reported.

Alaska Airlines mechanics had recommended replacing the worn jackscrew assembly, which is the focus of the crash investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

But the mechanics were then told to re-evaluate the part, and that produced the measurement indicating it was barely within safety limits, the newspaper said.

The FBI and the Department of Transportation are trying to determine whether the test result was legitimate or was manipulated by company workers to get the plane back into service without further inspections, the Seattle paper said.

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