SAFETY on British Airways flights has been called into question after air accident investigators found "systemic" problems with the fleet's jets.
Following inquiries into four mid-air failures, the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB), the aviation watchdog, warns that safety problems may be "widespread within the organisation" and substandard working practices are commonplace among maintenance staff.
The criticism provides a sharp contrast to BA's reputation as one of the best maintained fleets in the world.
The catalogue of safety failures compiled by the AAIB includes: a door ripping off a Boeing 777 at 6000ft which gouged the fuselage after maintenance engineers had failed to check it was shut properly; fuel pouring from a hole in a jet's fuel tank soon after take-off from Heathrow after the screws and cap to plug the hole had been removed and left inside the tank; a Boeing 757 that responded abnormally to flight controls after two of its wing panels were left in a hangar; and a Boeing 757 which had been over-filled with oil that had to be landed by pilots wearing oxygen masks.
The AAIB's reservations over BA's maintenance procedures are crystallised in a report on the Boeing 757which took off in September 2003 without two wing panels. The flight from Heathrow to Paris suffered oil fumes in the cabin after engine oil had been serviced incorrectly, and was aborted.
However, once the pilot had disengaged the autopilot to land, the craft began drifting to the right, forcing him to take corrective action.
The AAIB highlights similar failures with the BA flight from Gatwick to Antigua in June of the same year, when the craft lost an under-wing maintenance door in mid-flight.
The investigators say the failure to check that the wing panels were installed on the Paris flight "seems not to have been an isolated case, but more symptomatic of the existing culture.
"Ineffective supervision of maintenance staff had allowed working practices to develop that had compromised the level of airworthiness control and had become accepted as the 'norm', " they added.
"Maintenance errors were not the result of wilful negligence, or any desire to perform a less than satisfactory job, but the result of a combination of systemic issues that had increased the probability of an error being committed."
David Learmount, of Flight International magazine, said: "I've never seen a report like this before from the AAIB. They are saying, 'It has already happened once and you're still screwing up'. There's no excuse for what has happened."
BA employs about 6000 engineers, compared with 9500 in 1995, but its fleet remains at a similar size to what it was a 10 years ago ago.
Captain Rod Young, the head of safety at the airline, said: "The airline accepts the AAIB's recommendations, which identified factors in the maintenance process which led to this incident [in September 2003].
"These factors were immediately rectified by February 2004 following the airline's own investigation which was carried out in parallel with the AAIB's investigation.
"BA prides itself on safety and recognises that we are always ready to learn from incidents and encourage open transparent reporting."
He added that the company had reviewed its procedures to provide clearer instructions and roles for its engineers, while maintenance staff have benefited from reviewed procedures in serving engine oil to prevent over-filling.