Pilots union blames Alaska, FAA for events leading to crash

Posted: Friday, September 27, 2002

SEATTLE (AP) -- The airline pilots union is blaming what it calls a profit-seeking culture at Alaska Airlines and lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration for setting the stage for the January 2000 crash of Flight 261 that killed 88 people.

A report by the Air Line Pilots Association, along with comments from The Boeing Co., Alaska Airlines and other parties connected to the crash, was submitted to the National Transportation Safety Board which is investigating why the MD-83, en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle, crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

The NTSB's findings are expected in December, according to sources cited by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times, who obtained copies of the parties' reports.

Although the board has not issued a probable cause, sources told the newspapers that investigators suspect inadequate lubrication of the jackscrew, a part in the plane's tail that helps move the horizontal stabilizer and sets the plane's angle of flight.

While ALPA concurred with that finding, it also criticized the ''inappropriate relationship'' between the FAA and Alaska Airlines. The federal agency allowed Alaska to increase the intervals for lubricating and checking the jackscrew assembly with little oversight and allowed the Seattle-based airline to operate for years with ''critical deficiencies,'' the association said.

''The fact these deficiencies have existed for so long explains why the carrier had developed a culture of noncompliance,'' the union said in its report.

Alaska Airlines, in its submission, disputes that it inadequately greased the jackscrew. Rather, the airline contends, it was the type of grease recommended by airplane maker Boeing that led to extreme wear and caused the failure of the jackscrew, according to the newspapers' accounts. Alaska also blamed the design, saying the threads on the nut of the jackscrew assembly failed.

In addition, Alaska criticized former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall for what it called ''erroneous'' statements he made shortly after the crash that no grease was found in critical areas of the jackscrew assembly.

Boeing, in its statement, said it was the lack of grease -- not the type -- that led to the failure.

The plane that crashed went ''an extended period without adequate lubrication,'' according to the report from Boeing, which bought the plane's manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, in 1997.

In addition to the NTSB inquiry, Alaska and Boeing face dozens of wrongful-death suits that are scheduled for trial in April 2003.

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