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Pilots at American Urge Airbus Jet Groundings

Safety: Visual inspections ordered by the FAA on A300 airliners after the crash of Flight 587 in N.Y. are called inadequate.

January 25, 2002|ERIC MALNIC and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Several dozen American Airlines pilots have asked the airline to ground 34 Airbus jetliners like the one that crashed in New York after its tail broke off.

The pilots contend that the visual inspections ordered after the crash by the Federal Aviation Administration are inadequate to determine whether the A300 airliners are safe.

"Until a definitive cause for the crash of Flight 587 can be determined, along with ways to prevent a similar occurrence, and/or a definitive test can be developed to truly check the vertical stabilizers of our remaining 34 A300s, [we] recommend that American Airlines fleet of A300s be grounded," the pilots said in an e-mail that they planned to forward to airline officials.

But the Allied Pilots Assn., the union representing most of the airline's 11,000 pilots, said Thursday that it has seen no reason to ground the planes. Neither has the airline, the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board or Airbus Industrie, the company that built the jetliner.

Flight 587 crashed Nov. 12 when its nonmetallic, composite tail snapped off moments after the twin-engine jumbo jet lifted off from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. All 260 aboard the plane and five people on the ground were killed.

Questions arose immediately about the design of the vertical tail fin and its carbon-fiber laminate material.

Federal investigators said last week that several layers of the laminate had peeled apart, but it was not known whether that delamination occurred before or during the crash. The tail had a delamination flaw that was fixed before the plane was put into service.

There are about 2,400 Airbus jetliners with similar tails being flown by 150 carriers around the world. If American decides to ground its planes, other airlines might follow suit, creating a crisis at Airbus and snarling international air transportation.

"Grounding 34 wide-body airliners is nothing to take lightly," the e-mail said. "Our company would surely feel the loss of revenue; Airbus Industrie has already hinted that such a recommendation by American would likely reverberate."

But American said Thursday that it will keep its planes in the air.

"Nothing in the examination of the Airbus fleet, or in the tests conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, by American Airlines or by other Airbus operators suggests that there is a need to ground this fleet," the Dallas-based carrier said.

The pilots union agreed.

"We are not advocating a grounding of that fleet," Greg Overman, a spokesman for the pilots association, said Thursday night.

Airbus reacted sharply to the pilots' request.

"Airbus looks at this as a small group of people who are expressing an opinion, and that opinion is not based on anything more than opinion--it is not based on fact," spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn said.

Pilot union officials said the e-mail was a rare, grass-roots effort that was not endorsed by the union.

"I have not seen anything like this in my 12 years with the airline," said Robert Sproc, vice chairman of the union's Miami local and an American first officer, flying DC-10s. Sproc said he has not signed the e-mail.

Tom Frazer, an A300 captain for American and chairman of the Miami local, said pilots are concerned about the plane, but, like Sproc, he took no position on whether the A300 should be grounded.

"I have been on that airplane as long as American has owned it and I consider it a good airplane, quite airworthy and quite strong," he said.

Airbus uses ultrasound to inspect composite materials before jetliners leave the factory.

Airbus officials said their own testing has shown that visual inspection is more than adequate for routine maintenance checks because damage that is not visible to the naked eye does not grow, and will not compromise the structural integrity of the tail fin.

The NTSB is still looking at several possible explanations for the Nov. 12 crash, including design flaws, structural problems, mechanical issues and pilot error.

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