A Tale of Two Accidents

Nov. 1, 2000

A Tale of Two Accidents

Updates - Lessons for Technicians?

By Stephen P. Prentice November 2000

Sometimes it pays to step back and take a look at what happened during the investigation of some accidents and their affect on maintenance in general and technicians and management in particular.

The big one
Alaska Airlines has been the most visible whipping boy for attack by the FAA and the Justice Department since the unfortunate accident with the MD80's worn stabilizer jackscrew that appears to have jammed. The date was January 31, 2000. These mechanical devices are common inspection items for many general aviation technicians. The flap actuator jackscrew located in the right wing of many Cessnas for example, is a regular inspection and lubrication item. Many Jet Commanders had their stab jack screw actuators replaced in a recent campaign due to fears of their jamming.
On the one hand, FAA has pawed over the airline's paperwork for what seems a long time while on the other hand, FBI and Justice Department drones have focused on the maintenance base at Oakland. Technicians' loyalty has been severely compromised and they don't know from one day to the next what might be coming from the Government. There have been some conclusions but very little action so far by FAA. The FBI and Justice Department still continue their investigation at the maintenance base in Oakland.
In response, the company said they established and hired a new Vice President-Safety, and retained a group of people to do the customary in-house "safety audit."
So far, the newspapers have reported that maintenance oversight at Alaska was sorely absent and that specific mandated programs were not in effect. A regulatory requirement for a continuous airworthiness surveillance system was supposed to be in place in order to detect maintenance problems before they got out of hand. (FAR 121.373). Such a program appeared to exist in name only. Where was the oversight on this program by FAA's own inspectors during all this time? Now, FAA proposes to rotate inspectors on shifts through air carriers to insure complacency has not set in.
However, the airline's certificate to operate has not been seriously threatened so far and no fines have been paid. One lower management person has been forced off the job and two inspector/technicians have certificate actions pending. The accident of course, as we all should recall, resulted in the loss of 88 lives.
Now all the technicians at the airline know is what they read in the papers and what they are told by the employer. The Feds tell you nothing as a rule. But technicians do have recourse.

Technician's lawsuit
It was bound to happen. When technicians lose confidence in the company and the company throws barbs at technicians, what can they do? You got it. They can sue the company for, among other things, defamation.
There is nothing to stop this mutually destructive fighting that will ultimately weaken employee-employer relationships and might destroy a company. If the company throws rocks at the maintenance department then what can be expected?
The technician concerned filed a $20 million lawsuit (the amount is really not relevant) against the employer for suggesting on their web site that he was incompetent. He was labeled as a "disgruntled employee," which may or may not have been true. Many employees are disgruntled all the time, but this does not mean they are incompetent.
Labor relations should be kept close to the vest within a company and not published on a web site. The issue is a complicated one and room for compromise and discussion cannot be maintained without flexibility.

The other accident
On October 25, 1999 three months before Alaska's accident, a LearJet operated by a FAR 135 air carrier, carrying two crew and four passengers ran out of fuel and spun in with all aboard apparently incapacitated. Cabin pressurization is the focus of investigation but so far there has been no cause found for the accident.
Shortly after the accident, the FBI and Justice Department personnel raided the business office of the company then called Sunjet, and seized all their operating records. They alleged that crimes were committed. The same type of raid occurred in the Alaska case. In Florida, the company was left with nothing to operate their business and had to hire a firm to copy their own records in the hands of the Government when they were allowed to do so.
The intimidating action, and loss of business because of the publicity following the raid resulted in the small company turning in their air carrier certificate and later selling the business. In this case, the small business was shut down.
The FBI and Justice Department investigation continues. FAA on the other hand has suggested that they will now go after former management people for alleged paperwork violations.
No reason for the accident has been found. The company did nothing wrong. Six people were lost in the accident. One of those people was described as a high profile person. It might be added, that every loss of a life is high profile to somebody.
We've already talked about keeping your lawyer handy and protecting your records before the Feds come knocking. Don't forget it!

The small company is out of business. Management is under the gun. Six lives were lost. The cause of the accident has not been found. NTSB is still looking.
The big company is still in business with no apparent threat to its certificate so far. No fines paid. One minor management person is on leave. One technician/inspector is charged in a FAA certificate action. The cause of the accident seems to be a maintenance irregularity. Eighty-eight lives were lost.

Criminal investigations?
Both of the accidents resulted in FBI and Justice Department criminal investigations.
It seems that this will be the norm in virtually all aircraft accidents - both big and small - especially when a large number of lives are lost or there are high profile people involved.
This should give pause to those in the business who carry or do work for people described as high profile.
Ever since the watershed case of USA vs Eastern Air Lines and some of its maintenance personnel, it seems that it is necessary for law enforcement to get involved in aircraft accidents. This of course on top of FAA, the DOT, local agencies, and last but not least, the National Transportation Safety Board. (NTSB). The law enforcement people see these events as opportunities to advance their careers, especially the Federals. However, their egregious conduct usually halts any meaningful investigation of the cause of the accident by the NTSB.

Great danger
The criminalization of aircraft accident and incident investigations is paving the way for the demise of the impartiality of investigations. They will now be driven by outside forces including, but not limited to, politics. This is not good.
There is some hope, however. The key issue of granting immunity to technicians, pilots and others in the chain of responsibility is presently being discussed in Congress. Without the ability to grant immunity the Board many times is prevented from getting vital details relevant to accidents from technicians who are fearful of prosecution or interrogation by FBI.

Need for immunity
Legislation which is slated for next year's Congress, would provide blanket immunity from criminal prosecution for those involved with accidents. When people fear prosecution they simply will not report errors and omissions that would aid in investigating accidents but might also bring the Feds down on them.

Other programs at risk
The fallout threat from the criminalization of aircraft accidents is the potential collapse of all the voluntary reporting systems that are essential for continued FAA surveillance. Voluntary programs such as the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), the Flight Operations Quality Assurance program, and the Aviation Safety Action Program rely on unfettered cooperation between the parties. The popular use of criminal investigations and charges are continuing to raise doubts in the industry about providing any information to Government.
Any lawyer worth his salt today will advise clients to avoid giving any statement without a grant of immunity. Technicians should consider this when caught up in any accident investigation. You gain nothing by being cooperative and may incriminate yourself. Ask the technicians in the ValuJet/Sabertech case. Furthermore, government agents, including FAA inspectors and DOT personnel, may shortly have to give the Miranda warning before talking to anyone involved in an accident or incident. Lawyers for the defense would welcome this event.
Take note that in all of the recent major investigations by NTSB there was also a companion criminal investigation by the Justice Department. The NTSB should be allowed to conduct its investigation without interference from Justice Department agents and lawyers. Grants of immunity could solve this problem. If everybody is immune from prosecution there will be no need for the cops!