American Airlines Mx Target of FAA’s Largest Penalty

 - September 1, 2010, 7:11 AM

There’s an important lesson to be learned from the FAA’s proposed $24.2 million civil penalty against American Airlines for improper maintenance procedures. When the FAA says “correct it,” it means immediately. The airline has been tagged for the largest civil penalty ever proposed by the FAA for failing to correctly follow a 2006 Airworthiness Directive involving the maintenance of its McDonnell Douglas MD-80s. 

AD 2006-15-15 required a one-time general visual inspection to be performed no later than March 5, 2008, for chafing or signs of arcing of the wire bundle for the auxiliary hydraulic pump. It also required operators to perform corrective actions in accordance with the instructions of the applicable manufacturer’s Service Bulletin.

The purpose of the AD was to prevent the shorting of wires or arcing at the auxiliary hydraulic pump, which could result in loss of auxiliary hydraulic power or a fire in the airliner’s wheel well. It also sought to reduce the potential for an ignition source adjacent to the fuel tanks, which, in combination with the flammable vapors, could result in a fuel-tank explosion. More…

According to an FAA spokesman, the agency first detected the violations on March 25, 2008, during an inspection of two aircraft. The FAA informed American’s management that the aircraft did not comply with the AD, prompting a series of re-inspections and additional maintenance work over the course of the following two weeks. 

The FAA subsequently inspected eight aircraft at American’s Tulsa maintenance base and found that seven did not comply with the Airworthiness Directive. 

On April 7, the FAA inspected another nine MD-80s at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and found that eight of them still did not comply with the AD. A 10th aircraft inspected by American mechanics also did not comply. “Essentially, American kept telling us the problem was fixed when it wasn’t,” said the spokesman. 

On April 8, American began grounding its MD-80 fleet, canceling 340 flights, to conduct new inspections and redo work as necessary. The aircraft were returned to service one at a time after a detailed inspection. In the final analysis 286 of American’s 300 MD-80s were not in compliance. 

According to the FAA, the proposed historic penalty was simply one of mathematics. “American made 14,278 flights with aircraft not in compliance. Every time an aircraft took off in violation it incurred a fine that could have been levied as high as $25,000 per event or potentially $356,950,000,” he said. 

Andrea Huguely, a spokesman for American Airlines, told AIN, “These events happened more than two years ago and we believe this action is unwarranted. We plan to follow the FAA’s process and will challenge any proposed civil penalty. We are confident we have a strong case and the facts will bear this out. Receipt of the FAA proposed penalty will give us the chance to present the facts, which will support our actions taken in early 2008. American Airlines has always maintained its aircraft to the highest standards, and we continue to do so. We assure our customers there was never a safety-of-flight issue surrounding these circumstances more than two years ago.”

In a 58-page letter to American Airlines president Thomas Horton, the FAA informed the airline that it is subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $25,000 for each of the violations noted, then offered, “After careful consideration of all available information, the FAA is willing to accept $24,201,000 in settlement of this matter.”