Friday, August 15, 2008

It's fine season at the FAA

FAA logoThe U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in a 'fine' mood. That is, they've got fines on their collective mind. Yesterday the FAA announced fines against American Airlines totaling $7.1 million. Then today, as reported by Reuters and others, the FAA said that a record $10.2 million fine against Southwest Airlines, which the airline had appealed, "is appropriate" and would remain at the proposed amount.

American Airlines

The FAA is proposing a $4.1 million civil penalty against American Airlines for violations involving MD-83 aircraft.
The FAA asserts that in December 2007, American used the wrong provisions of its Minimum Equipment List (MEL) to return two MD-83 aircraft to service after pilots had reported problems, and flew the planes 58 times in violation of FAA regulations. The MEL contains components and systems without which the aircraft may operate safely under specific limitations, as proven by the operator or manufacturer.

On December 11 and 12, American operated the first MD-83 on eight flights in airspace it should have been restricted from after maintenance on part of the autopilot system was improperly deferred. An FAA inspector discovered the improper deferral and informed the airline, however American flew the plane on 10 more revenue flights until the problem was fixed on December 17.

In another incident, the autopilot disconnected during a landing by the same aircraft on December 21. American technicians did not check for the actual problem, and instead deferred maintenance using an inappropriate MEL item. The plane flew another 36 passenger-carrying flights during December 21-31. Airline maintenance later discovered the fault was in a radio altimeter – not the autopilot.
The FAA is proposing a $325,000 civil penalty for a different instance in which an MD-83 experienced an autopilot disconnect. Although American mechanics correctly diagnosed the problem, they again deferred maintenance under the wrong item of the MEL. As a result, the aircraft operated on four revenue flights without a fully functioning autopilot.

Finally, in May of this year the FAA proposed $2.7 million in civil penalties against American for "alleged past deficiencies in its drug and alcohol testing programs and for allegedly operating aircraft in past years without timely inspections of emergency escape path lighting systems." The amount included $1.7 million civil penalty for the testing program violations and $1 million for the lighting inspection violations.

A statement issued by American Airlines says the carrier does not agree with the FAA's findings, and that the proposed penalties are excessive.

Southwest Airlines

In March of 2008, the FAA proposed a $10.2 million civil penalty from Southwest Airlines "for operating 46 airplanes without performing mandatory inspections for fuselage fatigue cracking." Subsequently, six of the 46 airplanes were found to have fatigue cracks.
From June 18, 2006 to March 14, 2007, the FAA alleges that Southwest Airlines operated 46 Boeing 737 airplanes on 59,791 flights while failing to comply with a September 8, 2004 FAA Airworthiness Directive (AD) that required repetitive inspections of certain fuselage areas to detect fatigue cracking.

The FAA alleges that after Southwest Airlines discovered that it had failed to accomplish the required repetitive inspections, between March 15, 2007 and March 23, 2007, it continued to operate those same 46 airplanes on an additional 1,451 flights. The amount of the civil penalty reflects the serious nature of those deliberate violations.

An AD is a legally enforceable rule issued by the FAA to correct an unsafe condition in an aviation product. In this case, the FAA’s AD mandated repetitive external detailed and eddy-current inspections at intervals of no more than 4,500 flight cycles to detect fatigue cracking in areas of the fuselage skin on some Boeing 737 models.
Southwest Airlines appealed the fine, but it has been upheld. The FAA now says it will turn the matter over to the Justice Department if payment is not received by August 29.