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Tue, Apr 22, 2008

American Airlines, FAA Clash Over Groundings

Inspectors Have Until May 30 To Complete Overdue Checks

American Airlines CEO Gerard Arpey personally apologized to the public last week for 3,300 flights cancelled over MD-80 inspection issues. This week, American has come out swinging at the FAA... and in the New York Times, no less.

The paper says the airline faces more groundings in coming weeks, and risks further agency ire by accusing the FAA of changing long-standing rules on how airworthiness directives are administered. Specifically, American's MD-80 lead engineer, Greg A. Magnuson, says the company has traditionally had the leeway to decide on its own how to resolve ambiguities or conflicts within ADs, but that's suddenly not being permitted.

In one example, American Airlines officials noted one AD which involved removing and reusing a bolt and a nut clip, while the associated parts list showed a bolt and a standard nut. The airline was cited for using the nut clip.

John Goglia, a maintenance expert and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, confirmed the FAA has left maintenance managers to guess whether procedures allowed in the past will be accepted today, or result in groundings. Of the grounding of American's entire MD-80 fleet over issues related to wire bundles in main gear wells, he told the Times, "...those airplanes could have flown for the rest of their careers and those wires would not have been a problem."

Magnuson notes that American actually helped Boeing write the service bulletin the airline was later accused of violating.

The FAA now says it will expand its audit of maintenance procedures to another 10 percent of the roughly 2,300 airwirthiness directives in effect for airliners. Airlines will apparently be left without any way to know whether standard procedures from the past are suddenly violations, which suggests more mass groundings are possible.

The agency isn't just targeting airlines, either -- but also its own inspectors, accused of being overly friendly with the airlines they oversee. US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters last week asked for reports within two weeks from both the FAA and American about how things could have been handled differently.

The Dallas Morning News reports inspectors overseeing American have since been given until May 30 to complete 19 overdue checks of the Fort Worth-based airline's maintenance procedures. American spokesman Tim Wagner said those inspections should "have a very low probability of impact as far as operations go."

The Professional Aviation Systems Specialists, which represents many FAA inspectors, says the agency's deadline puts them in a bind. "With all of the ... constantly changing priorities, our inspectors are concerned that there aren't enough of them to handle the priority of the day," said PASS spokeswoman Kori Blalock Keller.

If you have summer travel plans, you'll want to follow this story closely.

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.aa.com

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