April 3, 2011

Grounded Jets at American and Southwest - History Worth Remembering

View of the hole taken from the cabin

I’ve been sitting around this morning perusing stories about Southwest Airlines and their third explosive depressurization in as many years.  This all got me thinking about the FAA’s $7.2 million dollar fine against Southwest in 2008 followed quickly by a $24.2 million dollar fine against cross town rival American Airlines for a separate but related offense.  This past Friday, a 15 year old Southwest Boeing 737-300 lost pressurization while cruising at 36,000 feet after developing a large hole in the fuselage. 

The picture below illustrates how bad things could have been.  On April 28, 1988 a huge section of metal peeled away from the fuselage of another Boeing 737,  Aloha flight 243, exposing passengers to the elements as if the aircraft had been equipped with a convertible top.  They lost a crew member on that flight when Flight Attendant C.B. Lansing was sucked from the aircraft and fell to her death.  In addition to FA Lansing’s death, another 65 passengers and crew were injured. 
Aloha 243. April 28, 1988
As a result of the Aloha accident, the FAA ordered mandatory inspections of all Boeing 737 series aircraft.  Almost twenty years later in March of 2007, Southwest Airlines representatives notified the FAA that it had inadvertently missed these inspections on some of its aircraft. Some were nine months overdue.  It was revealed during the investigation that Southwest flew 46 Boeing 737s on 59,791 flights without the required maintenance inspections.

The aircraft in question were supposed to be grounded immediately, but the Southwest planes were not. For another nine days, the jets in question made more than 1,400 additional flights.  The airline was initially fined $10.2 million in March of 2008 for their lapse in procedures.  Southwest appealed the fine and eventually settled the case after agreeing to pay $7.5 million.  The largest fine ever levied against an airline.  The record wouldn't last.

As the record setting fine at Southwest rippled through the airline industry, it became apparent that many of the issues with Southwest's planes held true for other types of aircraft as well.  After the FAA found that Southwest had failed to comply with inspections of its 737s, the agency announced that it would conduct unscheduled inspections of aircraft owned by other airlines including American Airlines. As a result, many airlines began canceling flights in order to check or double-check their planes and maintenance records.

It was at this point that maintenance repair discrepancies surfaced at American Airlines and its fleet of MD80s.  At issue with the MD80 was the wiring that electrifies the planes' auxiliary hydraulic system.  But the problem wasn't with the functionality of the wiring. It was determined years ago that the wiring harness for the auxiliary hydraulic pump on the MD80 series aircraft was susceptible to rubbing and chafing as a result of its proximity to the landing gear doors.  

MD80 Auxiliary Hydraulic Pump - The wire bundle from center screen to right (white).  Closed gear door in the foreground.

The FAA, aircraft manufacturers and airlines became very concerned about wire bundles and the possibility of electrical sparks after the loss of TWA 800 in 1996 off Long Island which resulted in the deaths of all 230 passengers.  But the TWA 800 accident involved a Boeing aircraft, not McDonnell Douglas, the maker of the MD80, and the explosion on TWA 800 initiated inside a fuel tank after fuel vapors were ignited by an electrical short circuit.  The wire bundle in question on the MD80 is not in or even near the fuel tank.

The FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive (AD), an order to complete an inspection or work on an aircraft.  It should be noted that, as the largest operator of MD80s in the world, American Airlines was often called upon by the FAA to help write such directives and they did in fact write the initial version of this AD.  The initial version called for a protective sheath to be installed around the auxiliary hydraulic wire bundle and called for the sheath to be held in place by a series of ties that were to be placed one inch apart for the entire length of the wire bundle(This can all be seen in the picture above).  While American’s initial version of the procedure called for the ties to be one inch apart, it also allowed for slight variations of up to 1/8th of an inch.  The final FAA version came in the form of a 38-page handbook and omitted the 1/8th inch allowance.  American Airlines admitted that its engineers may have had some trouble deciphering the procedure.   

What occurred behind closed doors between American and the FAA at this point is unclear.  But it appears that an agreement could not be reached on a number of issues.  Were the aircraft in compliance?  If they were not, how much time, if any, would the airline have to correct the issue?  In the case against Southwest, the FAA allowed the airline to continue flying their jets while the required inspections were completed.  It was during this time that another 1400 flights took place with uninspected aircraft.

It is a misconception that the FAA grounded American’s MD80s…that decision was made in house.  But the massive and recent fine against Southwest was weighing heavily on the decision makers at American.  Grounding the fleet probably resulted in a smaller fine, but when you consider the lost revenue and massive inconveniences to the flying public, an argument could be made that it was a “cut your nose off to spite your face” move. 

th of an inch.  The airline has long disputed the agency’s findings, claiming that the violations were minor and never endangered passengers.  The FAA fined American Airlines $24.2 million for failing to properly follow the agency's Airworthiness Directive.  The fine reflected a more aggressive stance by the F.A.A., which has been criticized for being lax on some maintenance issues, particularly surrounding American Airlines and in the case involving Southwest.

The transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said in a statement, “We expect operators to perform inspections and conduct regular and required maintenance.” 

The previous highest fine was set at $9.5 million in 1987 against Eastern Airlines. But the company paid only about $1 million before going out of business.

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