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.
"Even though it was successfully accommodated, it's an issue of why did they get to that situation to begin with?" Allen said. "That is where we have to be vigilant to look at these systemic issues so they don't manifest themselves into accidents and incidents."
American insists the comprehensive audit was prompted by last year's congressional hearing and not by any particular problems since then. The carrier says it has performed well on recent regulatory exams and has added members to its audit team since last year.
"We think our team is ready, and we're cooperating with" the FAA, said Bob Reding, American's executive vice president of operations.
Southwest went through a similar examination last year. The FAA discovered problems that Southwest agreed to fix in exchange for paying a fine of $7.5 million, down from $10.2 million, the FAA said.
The changes required Southwest to rewrite all of its FAA-approved manuals and to increase its regulatory compliance staff.
Mike Van de Ven, Southwest's chief operating officer, said the company already planned to make some of the changes. Southwest has added nearly 20 people to its maintenance team to help comply with FAA demands, he said.
"I don't feel Southwest needs the FAA as a regulator to look over us and tell us we're safe enough," Van de Ven said. "We have all the reasons to be as safe as we possibly can, because safety is our number one priority."
Questions persist over how airlines perform work required by airworthiness directives. Many airlines complain that the orders are so complex they require flexibility to incorporate into a carrier's maintenance practices.
The FAA acknowledges the tension over safety directives and is preparing a report that will provide guidance to inspectors who are grappling with how serious a violation is, Allen said.
Basil Barimo, vice president of operations and safety for the Air Transport Association, said the report would urge that newly issued airworthiness directives distinguish between work that is safety-critical and work that isn't.
"It's going to provide a flow chart, if you will, and a process to help our inspectors not be black and white, but be more understanding of the nuances and who to reach out to," Allen said.
Still, carriers are worried about FAA enforcement and are seeking far more retroactive approvals for work that doesn't meet the exact specifications of airworthiness directives.
American and Southwest have sought far more of these approvals -- known as an "alternate means of compliance," or AMOC -- since last year's upheaval.
According to the FAA, American received 47 AMOCs between April 1, 2008 and March 31, compared with seven over the same period a year earlier. Southwest received 68 AMOCs over the past year, compared with 16 a year earlier.
"In the past, [airlines] would have said, 'this is a minor issue. We determine ourselves, in collaboration with our local FAA, that it's not a significant deviation and therefore we don't need to get some special approval,'" Barimo said.
American officials say they've received a disproportionate amount of FAA scrutiny because their maintenance is performed within the country. Many competitors have outsourced heavy maintenance to foreign repair stations, which the FAA inspects infrequently, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general.
American has 12,000 aviation mechanics, and Southwest has 1,700. That means American will inevitably report more mistakes through regulatory programs that encourage airline employees to report errors in exchange for immunity from enforcement action.
In February, the airline reported through such a program that it improperly performed work related to an airworthiness directive issued in 2006. The order governed how thrust reversers are maintained on Boeing 777 airplanes.
Regulators are now investigating how long American operated the planes out of compliance before disclosing it to the FAA in mid-February, officials said.
American's Wagner declined to discuss the investigation, but said the carrier is "as proactive as we can possibly be in addressing safety issues in the fleet."