The Federal Aviation Administration's lax oversight of aircraft maintenance at American Airlines raises concerns about the agency's ability to regulate airline maintenance in general, a government watchdog said.
Investigators confirmed at least four maintenance-related allegations made two years ago "have potential safety implications," according to a report by the Transportation Department's inspector general released Thursday .
At the time, maintenance problems at American were increasing, and the airline had experienced a 32 percent rise in delays of maintenance work, the report said. The airline went from an average of 298 open maintenance items to 394 open items, the report said.
Despite the increase, the FAA only tracked the number of deferrals rather than identifying the cause of the delays or the type of aircraft parts involved, the report said.
At the time, American also wasn't following required procedures for inspection of maintenance work, the report said. In one case, American didn't comply with a service bulletin alerting carriers to problems with windshield heating systems on Boeing 757s despite a warning that the problems could cause the windshields to crack or shattered if left uncorrected, the report said.
FAA and American officials say the problems are old issues that have largely been addressed.
American spokesman Tim Wagner said the airline's tally of delayed maintenance jobs has dropped sharply and is now below the industry's average for delayed work.
The carrier's "safety record and operational statistics prove that American Airlines maintenance practices are incredibly safe — amongst the best in the business," Wagner said.
However, the report said FAA is still working on some of the issues and the effectiveness of the agency's actions is "still uncertain."
Nor has the agency completed a national assessment to address problems uncovered at American that were "potentially crosscutting or industrywide," the report said.
"Where FAA has taken action, it only did so after we briefed agency officials on the need for them," the report said.
The report notes that after the inspector general's office brought the maintenance allegations to FAA's attention, the agency brought in inspectors not normally assigned to oversee American to conduct a special review. The outside inspectors made recommendations in June 2008, but FAA's managers located at the airline's headquarters didn't receive a copy of the inspectors' final report until a year later, the inspector general said.
FAA spokeswoman Sasha Johnson said the agency has "a robust oversight system for all carriers."
"We use every available tool to identify areas where carriers need to make improvements and we ensure corrective action is taken when necessary," Johnson said.
She said the agency is continuing to work to ensure American completes recommended actions.
Scott Shankland, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said the union has seen safety improvements since the inspector general and FAA stepped up oversight of the airline. The union, which represents pilots at American, made some of the original safety complaints.
American is owned by Texas-based AMR Corp. In the past month, FAA has proposed two $2 million-plus fines against American Eagle, a sister carrier of American. FAA is also wrapping up its own investigation of improperly performed maintenance at American that led the agency to ground the company's fleet MD-80 airliners in April 2008. The grounding created havoc for tens of thousands of travelers.
On the Net:
Transportation Department's Inspector General: http://www.oig.dot.gov/
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
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