Private consultants largely echo recent FAA audit of Alaska Airlines

Posted: Thursday, July 06, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) -- Alaska Airlines needs more personnel to improve safety monitoring, internal communication, maintenance and flight operations, according to consultants hired by the regional carrier.

Echoing many findings in a recent Federal Aviation Administration audit that was triggered largely by a crash in which 88 people died off the Southern California coast, the consultants said overwork had damaged morale and cut into training and maintenance time.

''Staffing levels in many areas appear to be disproportionately low, considering the growth in the airline's operations in recent years,'' the report said.

At the same time, the report said the company's planes are safe.

''The real litmus test is, would you get on it? Would you put your family on it?'' said William Hendricks, a former lead investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. ''It's a good, safe airline, functioning well.''

The review, shared with Alaska Air employees and labor unions Wednesday, blamed inconsistent documentation of policies and procedures on the fact that relatively few supervisors were solely responsible for such tasks.

Like the FAA audit, the report recommended establishment of an independent safety monitoring department within the company.

The study also cited poor communication between managers and workers and across departmental lines.

Alaska Airlines, which dominates north-south routes along the West Coast and ranks as the nation's 10th largest carrier, commissioned the study following the crash of Flight 261 on Jan. 31 and complaints by mechanics who said in March they felt pressured to cut corners.

Since late 1998 the company also has been the focus of a federal grand jury investigation into maintenance practices in Oakland, Calif., including work on the plane that crashed.

The audit was overseen by John Enders, president of Enders Associates International of Bethesda, Md., former president of the Flight Safety Foundation and former manager of aviation safety research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Enders was joined by 12 other consultants and eight Alaska Airlines pilots and maintenance personnel who spent eight weeks in April and May on flights, in maintenance hangars and in other work areas throughout the airline's system, which extends from Alaska to Mexico.

Unlike the FAA review, which reported findings that could lead to enforcement action, the consultants' 73-page report to airline executives made recommendations on ways to adopt industry ''best practices'' which often exceed requirements.

Internal monitoring capabilities have suffered from ''marginal staffing levels,'' and reorganization and additional hiring are needed to ''rebuild Alaska Airlines' safety culture,'' the report says.

Responsibility for the problems was not assigned in either the FAA audit or the consultants' report.

John Fowler, who was responsible for many of the areas that have drawn criticism as executive vice president for technical operations and system controls, announced his retirement last month. Other executives said he was not asked to leave.

Alaska Airlines president William S. Ayer said executives were unaware of the growing workloads and added that other audits in recent years, especially by the FAA and Defense Department, indicated the carrier was doing well.

''We never found all that much,'' Ayer said. ''This time, we found a whole bunch.''

The consultants' report said they found a ''cynicism that has developed in recent years as a result of the perception that the company has failed to act on sincerely made suggestions and recommendations'' by employees.

For example, Enders said, they were often greeted by comments like, ''We're glad you're here, but it's not going to do any good - nothing will happen.'' By the time the consultants finished asking their questions, he added, the typical remark was, ''this is the best thing that's ever happened.''

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