American Airlines is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration for possible problems in aircraft maintenance after a series of air safety incidents in the last six months, according to FAA and American officials.
The "special surveillance" began about two months ago after the FAA's routine monitoring of American prompted concern that the airline's rapid growth was outpacing its maintenance capabilities.
The FAA also became concerned about half a dozen incidents involving American jets, agency officials said, including one incident in which an engine fell off an American Airlines Boeing 727 in flight and another in which a pilot took off from the Mexico City airport on the wrong runway.
"The FAA has been conducting an audit of our procedures," acknowledged Lowell Duncan, American vice president. "We have had some incidents that have prompted the FAA to come in and look at our operations."
New Employees Added
Roger G. Knight, manager of the FAA's flight standards division at the agency's regional office in Fort Worth, said the investigation has turned up several areas of aircraft maintenance that needed improvement or correction. As a result, American has added hundreds of new employees to its staff of quality-assurance inspectors, auditors and air worthiness employees, Knight said.
"As the volume and pace of their work increased, they tended to defer action, the kind of thing that compounds," Knight said. "We felt there was a need to pay closer attention to correcting discrepancies as they occurred."
At the same time, Knight said, the FAA has reassigned a key maintenance supervisor with authority over American's principal maintenance base in Tulsa, Okla. Duncan said American has put its assistant vice president for aircraft maintenance on leave of absence.
Duncan and Knight said the two men were not fired.
Growth Changes Cited
"American Airlines is growing," Knight said. "Their fleet is expanding. They are adding new hubs. As you grow, you go through changes. What we have found is their maintenance program had not changed, but with these changes in size and scope they needed to do some adaptation."
Knight emphasized that the FAA was not implying that American's maintenance was deficient.
"We are not saying there were any aircraft flying that are not airworthy," Knight said. "I don't have any doubt that the aircraft they are flying are safe."
Last month, American's chairman and chief executive officer, Robert L. Crandall, told Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine that the airline had instituted its own internal investigation of six incidents involving safety that have occurred over the last six months.
"None of us," Crandall said, "like the fact that there have been a series of incidents so close together, so we've put a team together to determine whether there is any linkage, or is anything in training or maintenance. To date, we haven't found anything."
Incidents Trigger Probe
According to the magazine, the incidents that triggered American's internal inquiry were:
--On June 27 an American DC-10 aborted its takeoff from San Juan, Puerto Rico, after blowing two tires. The pilot, however, was unable to stop his aircraft and skidded into a lagoon.
--That same month, one of the airline's planes nearly collided with a private aircraft while descending over Grand Rapids, Mich. The incident, Aviation Week reported, "appeared to involve either a defective transponder or radar" in the private plane.
--A DC-10 made an emergency landing after its engine cowling came loose and struck the aircraft while it was climbing, causing its cabin to depressurize. According to the magazine, similar incidents have occurred "10-12 times to other carriers as well, and Crandall said McDonnell Douglas (which manufactures the DC-10) has been asked to fix the problem."
--In April an American Airlines Boeing 727 lost an engine over New Mexico after an ice ball formed by a leaking lavatory blew into it.
--While leaving Mexico City, "a pilot simply ignored everything we ever taught him and took off on the wrong runway," Crandall told Aviation Week.
--The magazine also reported that "American was fined this year after it discovered and reported to the Federal Aviation Administration that it mistakenly had been using non-metal pulleys in certain places on the wing because of a duplication of parts numbers." Crandall said the incident "was not a risk factor."