To Ground or Not to Ground

The FAA and Southwest and American Airlines


He cited an example where he found a violation of an AD that had not been complied with at an air carrier where he worked. He told the carrier to comply with the AD. They filed a self-disclosure report with the inspector. They continued to operate the aircraft concerned in violation of the AD requirement and failed to complete the detail requirements for a self-disclosure. He said he then rejected the self-disclosure and started the enforcement process. Some months later the man was interviewed by FAA management. He was asked why he had rejected the self-disclosure. He asked if his report was read and the answer was yes. He then told management that they now know that the carrier failed to comply with the requirements of the self-disclosure and in the process probably falsified documents concerned with it. FAA management said incredibly ”well we want to encourage self-disclosures and if we keep denying them we will not continue to get self-disclosures …”

The case was eventually terminated with a substantial reduction in fine that was probably never collected. The inspector has since left the FAA. There was clearly an attempt to intimidate the inspector and according to him it went on all the time.

There are three basic requirements for immunity in filing a self-disclosure.

  1. The violation must be immediately reported to the FAA and before it learns of it by other means,
  2. The violation must be inadvertent,
  3. And the violation must not involve a qualification issue. None of these requirements were met in the example cited. Even so, there is no guarantee of immunity.

Web-based reporting
Today, all carriers are required to file their self-disclosures via the Internet, so that there is no delay. They can of course follow up with a report to their PI after the Internet report is sent. In both the SWA and AA cases the self-disclosure was filed after the FAA was aware of the discrepancies. So there most likely would be no immunity available. However, it never hurts to file a self-disclosure even when the FAA finds out before the carrier.

As the SWA investigation was continuing the FAA instituted a “Special Emphasis Validation of Airworthiness Directives“ in order to do a quick check of current AD compliance with all air carriers. A series of ADs at each carrier was audited for compliance. AA was focused on with respect to a particular AD involving a cable wear problem due to chafing. This was significant at AA because it affected almost half of its fleet.

The following summary of the AA problems with the wiring AD is instructive to us all because of the detail that FAA said was ignored in complying with the AD.

The AD problem at American Airlines
Now here we go to the other extreme. American Airlines had wiring problems on its MD80s big time according to the FAA. As if by magic FAA inspectors now said that the wiring in some AA aircraft was below the standard of a particular Airworthiness Directive that required the work. (AD2006-15-15). The AD had been complied with. The airworthiness directive concerned protecting a cable from chafing against bolts on the airframe which could remove insulation and could create sparks in the area concerned. (No sparks or fires were ever reported by AA during operation of its aircraft.) The AD required that the cable simply be sheathed to protect against chafing and to secure it firmly. Not a particularly difficult task. Unfortunately the AD applied to almost half its fleet of MD80’s which were finally grounded by the company under threat of grounding by the FAA. As we all know, there was a huge loss of revenue and good will with the flying public by the cancellation of hundreds of flights.

Was this really necessary, or was it simply the FAA covering its rear by changing the way it was doing business because of the SWA revelations?

Similar understanding
Similar to events at SWA, the people in charge at American thought they had negotiated an extension of time to correct the minor sheathing attach problems (and not grounding half of their fleet). Again as in the SWA case, it was not in writing. Staff at American said that the aircraft had flown for more than 20 years without a chafing problem and could easily have flown for a while longer with the minor variations in the new methods of protection until fixed. This was also supported by none other than John Goglia, former member of the NTSB, who agreed with the American people. It would appear that this action was totally uncalled for and reflects badly on the people who are at the top at the FAA.

Total nonsense by FAA
To show what nonsense the FAA action was, this is what it was concerned about . . . the AD called for tie wraps around the new sheathing at 1-inch intervals along the cable . . . the AA tie wraps were spaced about 1.25 inches apart. (An FAA inspector actually measured the distance.) However, because of this complaint by the FAA the airline requested and received an AMOC from the Long Beach Aircraft Certification Office (ACO), to allow this slight increase. The aircraft were still grounded. It seems the FAA actions make no sense and swing from one extreme to the other where enforcement is concerned.

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