Apr. 6--One year after an investigation of lapsed maintenance led to a crippling of airline operations across the country, federal regulators and carriers are struggling to balance regulatory scrutiny with the nonstop business of commercial aviation.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines has emerged as a persistent source of concern for regulators, who have investigated a string of problems that occurred since American grounded its largest fleet of aircraft last spring. One recent example: on some planes, American mechanics incorrectly reassembled pieces of a thrust reverser, which slows down a jet upon landing.
That mistake could have resulted in the grounding of as much as half of American's fleet of Boeing 777s, the workhorse of the carrier's profitable international routes. Instead, American and the Federal Aviation Administration resolved the standoff in a way that didn't disrupt the carrier's operations.
In the aftermath of the April 2008 groundings, the FAA became more assertive in policing airlines. While that has remained constant, the agency has also relearned the need to be flexible.
"We all have learned a lot since that time, and the winner is the American public," said John M. Allen, FAA director of flight standards service. "They get to not have aircraft grounded and impact their flying schedule, as occurred last spring."
Last February, the FAA was embarrassed by disclosures of its poor oversight of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which was fined $10.2 million for operating planes that were overdue for critical safety inspections. After a congressional hearing exposed the failures, the FAA investigated whether airlines across the country were complying with safety rules known as airworthiness directives.
Those inspections led to trouble for American, which was found to have incorrectly performed required maintenance on hundreds of its McDonnell Douglas MD-80 jets. The airline twice grounded the fleet to make fixes, canceling thousands of flights and costing the company tens of millions of dollars.
American complained loudly that its mistakes were minor and never endangered safety. The airline blamed the FAA for overreacting to criticism about its failure to monitor Southwest.
Aviation officials say airlines are still playing defense against what they view as the FAA's exacting -- and sometimes punishing -- interpretation of compliance with airworthiness directives.
Mechanics "used to be trusted to do work that met the safety requirements of an airworthiness directive, even if it didn't match the extreme letter of the law," said Tim Wagner, an American spokesman. "But now the FAA is administering to the letter of the law, and we are adjusting to that change in how the FAA operates."
Wagner also said FAA enforcement investigations "have increased since the FAA changed how they administer their oversight function last year."
Airlines may feel more pressure from the FAA because agency inspectors, who complained last year about management interference with their investigations, now say they're free to investigate. Last year's congressional hearing examined allegations that FAA management was too cozy with airlines.
"They feel less resistance, and therefore more free to do their job," said Douglas E. Peters, one of two FAA whistle-blowers who brought Southwest's problems to light.
Last week, FAA inspectors began a special audit of American prompted by "several issues that came up that gave us some cause for concern," Allen said. The comprehensive audit, which will look at American's procedures for complying with FAA regulations, could last three months, officials said.
The FAA's concerns include a recent disclosure of damaged emergency slides on American jets. The FAA found that mechanics weren't using the proper tool to repack the slides, which led to cracks in the tubing used to inflate them. The FAA and airline worked out a schedule to fix the slides while minimizing the number of planes grounded.
In the face of unprecedented federal scrutiny of airline maintenance, airlines are taking dramatic steps to prove compliance, including canceling flights to redo work they may have already performed.
Whistleblowers say officials looked the other way.
The audit, which applies to all US carriers, wraps up this week. The FAA could announce results as soon as Monday.