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FAA proposes halting Alaska Airlines' ability to do maintenance

Posted: Friday, June 02, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- After finding nearly 150 cases where aircraft maintenance could not be documented, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed to strip Alaska Airlines of the right to perform maintenance on its planes.

The step could eventually force the airline to park its planes and stop flying.

''We have serious concerns about critical processes, including management effectiveness,'' Nick Lacey, director of Flight Standards Service for the FAA, said Friday.

He said the airline has seven days to respond, showing steps it has taken to avoid losing its maintenance authority. If that response is inadequate, Lacey said, he could suspend that authority in 30 days.

John Kelly, chairman and chief executive of Alaska Air Group, the airline's parent company, told a news conference the airline would meet the seven-day deadline.

''I'm pleased to say that many if not all of the findings the FAA outlined in its news release this morning were addressed by us over recent weeks as soon as they were raised by the FAA during its audit,'' Kelly said. He declined to say whether any employee would be disciplined because of the FAA's findings.

The FAA's investigation is proceeding and enforcement actions -- usually civil fines -- could be announced in coming weeks, Lacey said.

Shares of Alaska Airlines tumbled 4 percent on the news, falling $1.1875 to close at $30.75 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

The FAA launched an intense inspection of the airline after the Jan. 31 crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in the Pacific Ocean off Los Angeles, killing all 88 aboard. Allegations of unsafe maintenance work, which first surfaced in 1998, were thrust back into the spotlight.

Lacey said the inspections found no problems in day-to-day operations but disclosed about 150 instances in which work scheduled in heavy maintenance operations could not be documented.

Re-inspections found the work had been done, he said.

But the lack of documentation indicated poor management attention to detail that concerned the regulators enough to demand changes.

''It's more than a paperwork problem. It's serious that the company did not pick up on these problems,'' Lacey said. ''Aircraft accidents result from a series of small errors.''

But he did stress that in the 150 problem cases the work had been completed.

''If we had found maintenance that was not performed, or sloppy ... we would be taking a different course. We would not hesitate to shut the airline down.''

Heavy maintenance requires an aircraft to be removed from service for a time while major components are repaired or replaced. The carrier's problems centered on the documentation needed to ensure all the work was done properly so the plane could be returned to service.

Alaska Airlines has 89 planes in its fleet and at any one time between four and six are undergoing this process.

Lacey said if its authority to do the work is lifted the airline would not be allowed to contract the work out. It would simply have to park planes due for maintenance, he said.

An airline must follow maintenance procedures that the FAA has approved, he said. If it contracts the work out, the contractor must follow that airline's designated procedures. Since Alaska Airlines was not following its own procedures, it could not be expected to supervise the work of a contractor properly, he said.

He said the agency has sent a team of inspectors to the airline's maintenance facilities in Oakland, Calif., and Seattle and is documenting the work being done on planes now undergoing maintenance.

That means the airline can return those planes to service, and the FAA inspections will continue to make sure planes have correct maintenance procedures.

But those inspectors cannot remain there indefinitely, he said, so the agency will lift Alaska Airline's maintenance authority unless it can develop an acceptable plan and procedures to correct the problems.

In addition, Lacey said, Alaska Airlines will be required to submit a growth plan to the FAA district office for any proposed expansion of its services.

The threat of losing its maintenance authority is designed to spur the airline into correcting its problems, Lacey said, and he noted that it has hired consultants to assist in making changes.

It is just the latest in a series of problems for the carrier in addition to the January crash.

A grand jury is investigating charges that airline managers in Oakland signed off on work that was never performed, the January crash remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and this week, the airline said it would fire two pilots who continued a flight even though they had failed to properly pressurize the cabin.

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On the Net: Federal Aviation Administration http://www.faa.gov



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