In the nine years since airline deregulation began, much criticism has been leveled at some U.S. airlines for alleged corner-cutting in aircraft maintenance.
And in the last few years, record fines for maintenance violations have been paid by some of the largest airlines, including Pan Am, Eastern and American. Eastern was assessed a staggering $9.5-million maintenance penalty by the FAA.
While flying is statistically still the safest way to travel, reports of maintenance violations threaten to weaken the positive safety reports.
No one seems more worried about the problems of airline maintenance than John Galipault. Galipault is president of the Aviation Safety Institute, a nonprofit industry watchdog based in Worthington, Ohio.
"We've seen a steady decrease in safety margin standards by certain airlines," Galipault reports. "It is disturbing to me as a frequent passenger, but more important, it is disturbing to veteran airline pilots who continually report these incidents to us."
Many of the incidents pertain to something called the MEL or minimum equipment list. Every airline must have one. The MEL notes each piece of equipment absolutely necessary for the safe operation of every aircraft. And the FAA rules about the MEL appear to be quite strict. If any one item on the list is inoperative, the plane can't fly until the item is fixed and operational.
Ignoring the List
But Galipault reports that some airlines are starting to ignore parts of the MEL and are deferring maintenance on key pieces of equipment.
Why? Because of apparent loopholes in the rules that seemingly permit airlines to defer maintenance on some key items until repairs become absolutely necessary, or worse. For starters, the FAA no longer requires that a copy of the MEL be kept in airline cockpits for easy reference by pilots.
One airline captain, whose airline still keeps the MEL in the cockpits anyway, recently wrote to Galipault:
"I am pleased that my airline has chosen to retain the MEL in the cockpit where it belongs," he wrote. "I have had more than one disagreement with maintenance control over interpretation of what the MEL says, a few of which were resolved by my position of 'fix it, get me another airplane or find yourself another captain.' I have not lost yet. You can bet I would have heard from management if I were wrong."
One of the MEL loopholes cited by the pilot is the rule that an aircraft with malfunctioning equipment may continue the flight or series of flights but shall not depart an airport where repairs can be made. "Unfortunately," says the veteran pilot, "some airlines interpret this as where repairs can conveniently be made. The MEL was never intended to provide for continued operations of the aircraft for an indefinite period with inoperative items."
And yet this appears to be happening with some airlines.
"We know of one 727," Galipault reports, "where the brake on the landing gear has been written up 17 times as being broken and it's still not fixed."
Galipault's group tracked another flight from Kansas City to Las Vegas. The airplane was flown with an outflow valve (the valve that equalizes pressure inside the aircraft) stuck in the open position.
In another incident, the oxygen system was inoperative in the cockpit on a flight between Houston and San Diego. The airline still allowed the plane to be flown.
And one of the most serious infractions recorded by ASI was the discovery of a 727 used by an airline on the heavily traveled New York to Washington, D.C., shuttle. From Feb. 9-20 the airplane was flown regularly--and repeatedly--on that route, and it was missing a crucial piece of safety equipment.
"We discovered that the GPWS (the ground proximity warning system, the device that warns pilots when they are too close to obstacles on the ground) wasn't even in the airplane," Galipault says. "This is absolutely unacceptable maintenance."
Galipault wrote to the FAA with specifics: the airlines involved, the dates and the tail numbers of specific aircraft on which the alleged violations occurred. He has yet to receive a response. (The FAA says it is still studying the information.)
Another potential safety problem Galipault reports is in the area of the FAA granting special exemptions to certain airlines, allowing them to remove some safety equipment from aircraft.
Since 1977 the FAA has been granting airline requests for exemptions to Federal Air Regulation No. 121.339, the rule requiring all planes flying routes beyond 65 miles from land to carry life rafts.
According to figures provided by the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA has exempted 11 airlines from carrying life rafts on certain routes they fly.
On selected routes, these airlines include Continental, Eastern, Delta, Trans World, American and Braniff. Other airlines, such as Alaska and PSA, don't carry life rafts on any of their aircraft.