Industry defends air travel safety

Times Staff Writer

How safe is it to fly these days?

By most measures, it has never been safer. The only major fatal airline accident in the U.S. in the last seven years was the 2006 crash of a Comair plane in Kentucky as it attempted to take off on the wrong runway. Forty-nine people died.

But the American Airlines safety inspection debacle and the grounding Wednesday of scores of planes didn’t make fliers feel very secure.

“Passengers are definitely worried,” said Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for Passengers’ Bill of Rights, Health and Safety, a traveler advocacy group. “People are afraid.”


American Airlines and the airline industry took pains Wednesday to contend that the grounding of the planes wasn’t actually safety-related.

“We’ve got the safest air transportation system in the world and that’s reflected in our stellar record,” said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. “What the carriers are doing in terms of grounding airplanes is out of abundance of caution.”

American Airlines and industry officials said the twin-engine MD-80s -- with an average age of 18 years, they are the oldest in the carrier’s fleet -- were grounded because they had failed to “technically” meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements on how wires in the wheel wells were bundled together.

American Chief Executive Gerard Arpey said in an impromptu press conference at a Marina del Rey hotel that the planes weren’t taken out of service because the carrier was worried about their reliability.

“We failed in FAA’s eyes to meet their precise requirement and that’s our responsibility,” Arpey said.

An FAA spokesman said that the agency hadn’t ordered the carrier to take any action but had only notified American that it wasn’t in compliance with what’s called an airworthiness directive, an order from the federal government about inspecting for potentially faulty equipment.


The specific concerns FAA inspectors raised were with clips that hold electrical wiring in wheel wells and the direction they were facing, according to an American executive who asked not to be identified.

While the airline tried to minimize the significance of improperly installed clips, its own pilots said that the inspections were vital to preventing a potential accident.

The Allied Pilots Assn., the pilots union for American Airlines, said that the airworthiness directive was issued “to prevent shorted wires or arcing at the auxiliary hydraulic pump, which could result in loss of auxiliary hydraulic power, or a fire in the wheel well of the airplane.”

The union said that the directive was intended to “reduce the potential of an ignition source adjacent to the fuel tanks, which, in combination with flammable fuel vapors, could result in a fuel tank explosion and consequent loss of the airplane.”

“If that is all it is -- a technical compliance issue -- why did they have to ground all these planes?” said Kevin Cornwell, who has been an MD-80 pilot for 22 years.

Whether the grounding was safety-related or simply service-related, some longtime aviation experts said they were worried that the FAA was heading in the “wrong direction” by becoming “hypersensitive” to following airworthiness directives and potentially missing safety issues.

“We’re in a very difficult time because now everybody is in a cover-your-ass mode,” said Hans Weber, president of Tecop International Inc., an aviation technology consulting firm in San Diego.

At LAX on Wednesday, Dina Montalvo of Westminster was waiting in line to re-book a flight to San Antonio with her family. “I’m afraid of flying,” she said. “This doesn’t help, but I’m trying to get through it.”



Times staff writer Andrea Chang contributed to this report.