Thursday, August 26, 2010

One for the record books: FAA hits American Airlines with $24.2 million fine

by B. N. Sullivan

American Airlines MD-80A press release issued earlier today by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that the agency has proposed a $24.2 million civil penalty (i.e., fine) against American Airlines "for failing to correctly follow an Airworthiness Directive involving the maintenance of its McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft."  The proposed fine would be the largest ever levied against an airline by the FAA.  American Airlines has 30 days in which to respond, and the airline already has announced that it will challenge the proposed penalty, stating, "We are confident we have a strong case and the facts will bear this out."

The fine arises from alleged violations of a 2006 Airworthiness Directive (AD), which required the airline to inspect wire bundles in the wheel wells of MD-80 aircraft.  The AD required MD-80 operators to look for chafing or signs of arcing of the wire bundle for the auxiliary hydraulic pump, and to perform corrective actions if such defects were found.

The FAA explains:
The purpose of the Airworthiness Directive [AD 2006-15-15] was to prevent the shorting of 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 aircraft. The Airworthiness Directive also sought to reduce the potential of an ignition source adjacent to the fuel tanks, which, in combination with the flammable vapors, could result in a fuel tank explosion.
The airline had until March 5, 2008 to accomplish the required inspections, but on March 25, 2008 the FAA discovered two aircraft that were not in compliance with the AD.  This prompted a series of re-inspections and maintenance work.
On March 26, after American performed additional maintenance on its MD-80 fleet, the FAA inspected eight aircraft at American’s Tulsa maintenance base and found that seven did not comply with the Airworthiness Directive. On April 7, the FAA inspected another nine MD-80 aircraft at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and found that eight of them still did not comply with the AD. A tenth aircraft inspected by American mechanics also did not comply. On April 8, American began grounding its MD-80 fleet to conduct new inspections and redo work as necessary.

The FAA subsequently determined that 286 of the airline’s MD-80s were operated on a combined 14,278 passenger flights while the aircraft were not in compliance with Federal Regulations. American ultimately completed the work required by the 2006 Airworthiness Directive.
The alleged non-compliance with the AD proved very costly for the airline, even before the current proposed fine.  During April of 2008, the temporary grounding of American's entire fleet of MD-80 (S-80) aircraft caused well over 2,000 flights to be canceled.  This disrupted the travel plans of many thousands of passengers and shippers, and resulted in a massive loss of revenue for the carrier.

In addition, American Airlines agreed to provide pay protection to pilots and flight attendants who had been scheduled to work the canceled flights.

It will be interesting to see what details emerge in the airline's response to the FAA.  The airline claimed at the time that the grounding of the MD-80 fleet for re-inspection was "related to detailed, technical compliance issues and not safety-of-flight issues."

Here is the link to the FAA report that details the violations that are the basis for the huge proposed civil penalty: Enforcement Investigative Report No. 2008SW210302 - 58-page 'pdf' document

Related posts on Aircrew Buzz:
[Photo Source]