The Federal Aviation Administration levied an unprecedented $1.5-million fine against American Airlines on Friday for aircraft maintenance violations that ranged from postponing needed repairs to substituting plastic for metal parts.
The huge fine--three times larger than any previously levied against a U.S. air carrier--was imposed after the FAA investigated American’s maintenance procedures and performance after a series of air safety incidents involving the airline, FAA officials said.
Agency spokesman Fred Farrar said the hefty penalty reflected the FAA’s findings that “there are not only a lot of violations, but a trend of not fixing these things in favor of waiting for regularly scheduled maintenance periods.”
FAA Administrator Donald D. Engen said in announcing the fine that American “has taken prompt action to correct all deficiencies identified in the recent inspection.” He added that “the FAA is assured that the airline is operating, and will continue to operate, in accordance with the highest standards of safety.”
The airline, in a statement issued from its headquarters at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, described as “disappointing” both the fine and the results of an “extraordinarily intense audit and evaluation” by the FAA.
It acknowledged that the agency had found “several deficiencies in compliance with details of FAA’s regulations” but said that all of the problems “were promptly corrected.”
Shift in Policy
The large penalty against American reflects an FAA policy shift in recent years to more stringent enforcement of air safety regulations. It is based on 26 alleged violations of regulations involving maintenance performance, improper postponement of maintenance and defects in procedures for monitoring performance and quality control.
The major infractions cited against the airline include:
--Failing to replace a leaking drain valve in a lavatory for up to six months. Last April, fluid from a leaking lavatory formed “blue ice” that broke off from the outside of a Boeing 727, ripping away an engine.
--Allowing a DC-9 to make “numerous flights” despite reports of a malfunctioning left engine. The engine failed last July during a takeoff.
--Allowing a Boeing 727 to continue flying for several weeks after a pilot reported vibrations in the aircraft.
--Allowing numerous flights of another Boeing 727 despite pilot complaints about problems with the nose landing gear.
--Putting a pulley made of plastic instead of aluminum in the leading-edge slat system on the wings of several DC-10s. In an incident last September, a slat--which helps slow the plane’s speed--fell off the right wing as a DC-10 landed at Dallas-Fort Worth.
Until Friday, the largest fine imposed on an airline by the FAA was $500,000, also against American. That penalty was levied for improper maintenance procedures linked to the 1979 crash of an American DC-10 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, in which 273 people died.
At this point, one FAA official lamented privately: “American has got first and second place.”
The airline on Friday delivered a check for $1.5 million to the FAA’s Southwestern Division office, company spokesman Lowell C. Duncan Jr. said.
Fine Proposed Earlier
The payment includes the settlement of a $375,000 fine that the FAA proposed last January after it was discovered that American had improperly installed the plastic pulleys in the DC-10 slat systems. That fine was never formally assessed.
Duncan said American considered fighting the $1.5-million penalty but decided that the time, resources and manpower involved would be even more costly.
“We really don’t agree with all that FAA said,” he said, “but we felt it was much easier to pay the fine and get on with the business of running an airline. And, frankly, the publicity that would go for a long period of time would be much more damaging.”
During the FAA’s investigation, Duncan said American put its assistant vice president for aircraft maintenance on a leave of absence.
At the same time, Roger G. Knight, manager of the FAA’s flight standards division at its Fort Worth regional office, said a key FAA supervisor with authority over American’s principal maintenance base in Tulsa, Okla., was reassigned.
Duncan and Knight said the two men were not fired.
The company, in its statement, defended its safety record, saying: “Every American employee shares an unshakable commitment to safety and has long used maintenance standards which far exceed government-mandated minimums. As a result, American has an outstanding safety record and is determined to extend and improve that distinguished record in the years ahead.”