Welding suspended at Alaska Airlines

Posted: Friday, September 15, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) -- Welding has been suspended at Alaska Airlines following questions by federal investigators about the training and qualification of welders.

Announcing the move Thursday, Alaska Airlines officials said they remained confident their welding practices meet requirements but decided to rely on vendors until any questions are answered.

No evidence of poor work has been found, but ''because a question arose on this topic in the first place, we've determined we need to clarify the procedures in our manual for qualifying welders,'' president Bill Ayer and another company official said in a memorandum to company employees.

Welding is done at Alaska's maintenance bases in Seattle and Oakland, Calif. and constitutes a ''minuscule percentage'' of total maintenance work, so no disruption is anticipated, the memo said.

''All told, we expect this procedure to take two to three months at the most,'' the employee memo said.

The issue stems from an investigation by the FBI and the Transportation Department's inspector general into the company's overall maintenance practices. The probe predates the crash of Flight 261 where 88 people died Jan. 31 off the southern California coast. Five of the victims were from Alaska.

Federal investigators have asked ''everything about how we do welds,'' even inquiring about the lighting in work areas, an Alaska Airlines official told The Seattle Times.

Alaska Airlines, the dominant carrier on north-south routes along the West Coast, normally operates about 500 flights a day with a fleet of 90 planes.

A company employee came forward several weeks ago with questions about training for welders and the airline's inspectors in work on Boeing Co. aircraft, a federal law enforcement official told the Times.

At least four mechanics and inspectors were subsequently questioned by federal investigators who then provided the information to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has yet to find significant problems or safety issues with welding at Alaska Airlines, an agency official said.

The Alaska Airlines memo said the company had confirmed with Boeing and the FAA that its five welders meet the qualifications specified in the company's maintenance manual.

FAA officials agreed that the welders appear to be properly trained and certified but said a complete review was being made to make sure there are no problems.

The FBI and inspector general believe certified welders may have been allowed to delegate work to others with less expertise, a practice the FAA has sanctioned as long as a qualified welder oversees and approves the work.

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