In what could result in yet another setback to Eastern Airlines’ chances for survival, federal agents late Saturday night raided the carrier’s Miami headquarters in search of maintenance records.
The 30 postal agents took with them a large number of boxes from Eastern’s records center, the company said.
Eastern spokeswoman Karen Ceremsak termed the raid a “fishing expedition.” She said the government had earlier asked for some records, and “Eastern replied that they should get a warrant. That’s what they did.”
Ceremsak said “the government’s requests were broad. This indicates it was a fishing expedition. They were trying to come up with something. They were not targeting specific dates.”
She said Eastern’s attorneys, who in recent days had sought to stave off the action, were present during the raid.
The action comes at a critical time for the airline, which has been involved in bankruptcy proceedings for nearly two years. Ceremsak said Martin R. Shugrue, the Eastern court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, was notified of the raid.
Ceremsak said the government was “looking as widely as possible to turn up evidence they don’t have” for a trial set to begin early next year on Eastern’s past maintenance practices. In July, the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York returned indictments against the airline and nine of its former and present employees on charges of shoddy maintenance practices and allowing unsafe planes to fly.
No one in the U.S. attorney’s office could reached for comment about the weekend raid.
New York Newsday reported that in the raid agents were seeking evidence that the carrier has failed to maintain its aircraft and perform proper safety checks, even after the indictment last summer.
The government seized hundreds of safety logs which airlines are required to keep under Federal Aviation Adminstration regulations.
Last week, Eastern persuaded U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Burton R. Lifland that it should be allowed to draw $135 million from its escrow account for day-to-day operations. Shugrue testified that he wanted the large sum all at one time because frequent requests for funds caused negative publicity and were hurting Eastern’s image and business.
Shugrue also said the airline would become profitable by March. The day after the airline was given the money, Eastern’s reservations increased dramatically, Shugrue said. Eastern, whose machinists union has been on strike since March, 1989, had put the worst behind it, he said.
Hans J. Plickert, airline analyst with the New York-based Transportation Group, said Eastern, like many other airlines, has been through several maintenance inspections. A “good many of them are paper-work infractions,” he said. “That’s what you get during a labor problem.”
Added John W. Mattis, an independent airline analyst: “I think that the perception that Eastern has maintenance problems can certainly scare passengers and it takes away from the credibility of Martin Shugrue that Eastern is the most inspected airline in the United States.”
In another development, Joseph R. Leonard, 47, the airline’s vice president and chief operating officer, resigned Friday.
Although maintenance came under his area of responsibility, company spokeswoman Ceremsak said there was no connection between Leonard’s leaving and either the July indictments or Saturday’s raid. She said he had wanted to resign earlier but that Shugrue had talked him into staying.