The Federal Aviation Administration turned its complaint against Eastern Airlines over to the Justice Department on Friday, asking the department to collect as much as $78.3 million in fines for safety violations.
Earlier this year, the agency cited the airline for an alleged 78,372 violations of maintenance rules and levied a record fine of $9.5 million.
Eastern said that both the charges and the fine were unfair and offered to pay only $3.5 million, which itself would have been a record FAA fine.
But the federal agency refused the deal, set a Friday deadline for payment of the $9.5 million and vowed to take legal action if it was not paid by then. Eastern did not pay, and, technically, the FAA is now seeking a maximum fine of $1,000 for each of the 78,372 violations.
The request to collect the fine was contained in a letter from E. Tazewell Ellett, the FAA's chief counsel, to Lawrence Lippe, chief of the general litigation and legal advice section of the Justice Department's criminal division.
'Unprecedented Number of Violations'
"The case is based on an unprecedented number of maintenance-related violations of the FAA regulations discovered in the course of a special investigation earlier this year," Ellett said. "Consequently, we strongly recommend that the complaint seek collection of the maximum amount of civil penalties allowed under the statute."
The FAA could have originally fined Eastern $1,000--the sum it now seeks--for each of the alleged violations.
In a statement Friday, FAA Administrator Donald F. Engen said: "I regret the manner in which Eastern has approached this enforcement matter. The proposed civil penalty reflects the seriousness of the thousands of safety infractions, and, by refusing to pay, Eastern has chosen not to operate as the other airlines have done.
"Eastern has agreed to a 53-point program of corrective action, which we will monitor closely to ensure that they come into full compliance. . . . Eastern has regrettably chosen to litigate these issues rather than acknowledge their violations."
An Eastern spokesman, Glenn Parsons, said: "We have told the FAA we are not going to pay. The $9.5-million fine is unreasonable and is contrary to the facts presented and the laws that govern these matters." He added: "The main issue is one of record keeping and paper work rather rather than of safety violations."
The Justice Department, which handles such civil cases for most government agencies, has not decided how to proceed or whether it will sue in court. It might not even seek the total amount sought by the FAA, a Justice spokesman indicated.
"Of course we will consult with the FAA," spokesman Mark Sheehan said, "but we will exercise independent judgment."