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Airlines wrap up jetliner inspections

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

A monthlong flurry of airline inspections and flight cancellations is expected to wind down today as the Federal Aviation Administration wraps up the first stage of a sweeping inquiry into the way U.S. carriers are maintaining their aircraft.

But the challenge of keeping the nation's aging commercial fleet in top shape is far from over. Next week, the FAA will release its findings so far from an audit of maintenance record-keeping and performance of the nation's 118 larger airlines.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines said they expected to finish inspections Thursday of the wiring on their MD-80 jets after canceling hundreds of flights during the day.

US Airways said it too had canceled flights this week to inspect its 45 Boeing 757s after a wing panel fell off one of the planes during a flight Saturday, striking the side of the jet.

The inspections had only modest effects at Southern California airports.

Maintenance issues have been high profile at America's airports for weeks after the FAA assessed a $10.2-million fine against Southwest Airlines on March 6. Since then United Airlines, American Eagle, American and Delta have conducted voluntary inspections in conjunction with the FAA's audit of aircraft maintenance records.

FAA officials said the "unusual" number of inspections this month would culminate in next week's briefing of the results from the first part of its two-part audit of the airlines. The second stage of its review will conclude June 30, said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.

"I can't predict what the airlines will do, but it is an extremely safe industry and this is an example of the airlines taking precautionary measures to make sure that maintenance work has been done properly," she said. "Basically, it is a short-term snapshot to make sure that the airlines are complying."

Aviation experts said they expected next week's results to focus on the job the FAA and airlines were doing to assure quality maintenance control as the U.S. airline fleet ages.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said the government needed to monitor the airlines with more vigilance.

"The FAA is going to have to step up their pressure on the airlines and do more frequent inspections," Mineta, now vice chairman of public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, said in an interview. But "they do not have enough FAA inspectors to do the job. That is something that Congress is going to have to take a look at as well."

Airline industry consultant Scott Hamilton said the findings may reveal additional maintenance issues with some carriers. He said the decision to voluntarily ground planes for inspections didn't signal that they were unsafe.

"I think what you have more is a record-keeping and oversight issue," he said. "To me, what all of this says is, 'Where has the FAA been?.' . . . 'Why is this only now coming to light?' "

On Thursday, American canceled four departures from Los Angeles International Airport, one from Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and one from San Diego International Airport. Delta said its operations in Southern California were unaffected.

At LAX, American passenger Yana Galuz, who was traveling to Cabo San Lucas with a friend, said the flight inspections left her feeling nervous.

"We're going there to relax, but this is a little disturbing and a little scary that so many planes are having to be inspected," said Galuz, 30, a sales representative from Los Angeles. "But you still have to travel."

Nationwide, American had canceled 141 flights by mid-afternoon, about 6% of its primary jet operations. The Fort Worth-based airline, which canceled 318 flights Wednesday, said it expected to return to normal operations today. Delta canceled 275 flights Wednesday and Thursday but did not expect any cancellations today.

"It's unfortunate that we had to inconvenience some customers," said Delta spokesman Anthony Black. "But we felt it was important for us to finish the process sooner rather than later, particularly with the weekend coming up."

US Airways, which canceled 13 flights earlier this week, said it did not expect additional cancellations tied to its inspections following Saturday's incident. No passengers were hurt on that flight from Orlando, Fla. It landed safely in Philadelphia.

Other airlines were not considering flight cancellations or additional inspections because they said FAA audits had found them in full compliance with FAA directives and record-keeping.

"No issues have surfaced about our maintenance or record-keeping in those audits," said Tammy Lee, vice president of corporate communications for Northwest Airlines.

Representatives of Continental Airlines and Alaska Airlines also said their carriers would continue normal operations.

The effect of pulling airplanes out of service for unscheduled maintenance inspections was demonstrated two weeks ago when Southwest had to ground dozens of older 737s while they were inspected for fuselage cracks. The inspections forced the carrier to cancel 126 flights.

American Eagle, a corporate sister of American Airlines, later grounded 25 planes and canceled a handful of flights while inspection paperwork was updated. And United Airlines reinspected instruments on seven of its 747 jumbo jets, although no flights were canceled.

American passenger Rebecca Fredericks, who was traveling to Detroit from LAX on Thursday, said she didn't mind the hassle of inspections.

"I'd be more bothered if they put them in the air when they were damaged," said Fredericks, 45, adding that airlines "can't afford to cut corners." Times staff writer Martin Zimmerman contributed to this report.

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