WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal inspectors will launch special maintenance audits of the nation's largest airlines over the next four months, the Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday.
The announcement came as the FAA reported that Alaska Airlines, under intense scrutiny since a January crash off the coast of California, has made sufficient improvements to continue doing maintenance on its planes.
The agency had threatened to strip the airline of the right to do maintenance -- a step that could have eventually grounded all its planes -- unless its programs were improved.
Nick Lacey, FAA director of flight standards, said his inspectors will continue to closely monitor Alaska, but ''we are ... encouraged by what we have seen so far.''
''We're very pleased that the FAA has accepted our plan ... we really tried to go above and beyond what they asked for,'' Alaska Airlines President John F. Kelly said at a briefing in Seattle.
Bill Ayer, Alaska's chief operating officer, said the airline would be making a number of changes in maintenance practices over the next year.
''It's really important that this plan not sit on a shelf and collect dust. It has to be implemented. We are making it our No. 1 priority,'' Ayer said.
He said the airline welcomed the FAA's involvement. ''We need all the eyes we can get on the changes we are making here,'' he said.
Lacey said three teams of a half-dozen safety inspectors each will fan out starting July 17 to look at the maintenance programs of the nation's nine other major carriers.
The hope, Lacey said, is to identify successful programs and safety practices so airlines can share them with one another. If problems are found, however, he said, the FAA will not hesitate to act.
Lacey declined to reveal which airlines will be visited first, but said he expects to make the findings public. The nine major carriers are American Airlines, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, TWA, US Airways and United.
After those audits are done, he added, inspectors will turn their attention to the larger regional airlines and cargo carriers.
The close inspection of Alaska Airlines was launched after the Jan. 31 crash of 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. The cause of that accident remains under investigation.
But in its audit the FAA uncovered nearly 150 cases in which aircraft maintenance could not be documented. A reinspection of the planes showed that the work had actually been done, but the lack of documentation raised serious concerns about supervision and could eventually lead to civil fines.
The FAA said that unless the airline came up with improvements in its procedures it would lose the authority to do maintenance. That would have meant that the carriers' planes would be grounded, one by one, as they came due for work.
On Thursday the FAA said Alaska has developed a plan to hire 150 additional maintenance workers -- 82 have been hired so far -- filled previously vacant safety executive posts, revised its heavy maintenance procedures and made other changes.
Lacey said FAA inspectors will continue to monitor the carrier until mid-July to make sure it is continuing to follow its plan.
If it is not satisfied with continuing progress, he added, the FAA will not hesitate to lift its maintenance authority ''or take stronger action, if the facts warrant.''
He said that if all goes well the FAA will recheck Alaska's program 90 days after the mid-July report and again six months after that.
Changes are also being made in the way the FAA routinely supervises Alaska, he said, with the normal complement of inspectors to be increased from 12 to 18.
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