Chronic airplane problems may be endangering travelers Report says hundreds of flights disrupted yearly

November 27, 1998|By ORLANDO SENTINEL

TWA Express Flight 7358 was accelerating down the runway when the warning light flashed: trouble with the left engine.

The pilot safely stopped the 9-passenger turboprop on the runway, but it would not be the last time for this aircraft. It would happen again the next day, three more times within the month and twice the month after.

All told, that TWA Express plane would abort seven takeoffs within two months because of the same mechanical failure. There would be six unsuccessful repair attempts before mechanics found the cause -- a bad fuel valve.

It's not the only U.S. passenger plane to suffer from a problem that won't go away.

Chronic mechanical failures -- the same problem plaguing the same airplane again and again -- may be putting an untold number of travelers in danger by subjecting thousands of them each year to emergency landings or aborted takeoffs.

In a computer analysis of thousands of in-flight problems during the past 2 1/2 years, the Orlando Sentinel found that the same engines, landing gear, warning systems and flight controls sometimes fail again and again for months, even years. Hundreds of flights are disrupted every year.

Some of these flying lemons have been forced into aborted takeoffs or unscheduled landings as often as three times in a single day. Among the 85 aircraft with the most chronic breakdowns, those kinds of failures accounted for one-third of all their in-flight problems and caused almost half of the nearly 400 aborted takeoffs they reported.

Travelers might assume that maintenance crews are so sophisticated that repairs are made with scientific precision. They are not. Over and over again, crews guess what might be wrong. To make the fix, they sometimes simply go through a process of trial and error.

Travelers might also assume that they are protected from haphazard breakdowns because the Federal Aviation Administration keeps track. It does not. Even when the same problem strikes the same plane on a dozen flights, that doesn't mean the FAA will step in.

The agency insists that there is no evidence that passengers are being endangered by chronic breakdowns.

But the records show that serious mechanical problems are common and that potentially dangerous failures occur over extended periods without being fixed. For example:

Between April 1996 and January 1998, the wing flaps locked up on a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 on 13 flights.

During a two-year period, the main hydraulic system that powers wheel brakes and steering failed 11 times on a Continental Airlines Boeing 737.

In January 1998, a Comair turboprop was forced to make unscheduled landings on three consecutive days when the nose landing gear failed to retract after takeoff.

During a 15-month period, a United Express turboprop aborted nine takeoffs because a light repeatedly indicated the baggage door wasn't latched.

In May 1997, the crew of a TWA Express ATR-42 turboprop had to use an emergency system for three days in a row to lower the landing gear after the wheels failed to lower normally.

In November 1997, a Horizon Air Fokker twin jet made unscheduled landings three times in four days because the landing gear would not retract after takeoff.

None of the planes were grounded by the FAA. Nor were the airlines fined.

Independent aviation experts and safety advocates who reviewed the Sentinel's findings said the FAA's lack of oversight in repetitive failures is a gaping hole in its safety net.

Though most problems don't mean disaster, the evidence nevertheless shows that even a relatively minor malfunction that causes an inconvenience on one flight could mean disaster on the next.

Consider TWA Flight 843.

Usually, an aborted takeoff means a disruption -- a delay or a change of planes. But that wasn't the case six years ago, when the crew of the TWA jumbo jet leaving New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport aborted at 190 mph when a malfunctioning alarm went off -- for the ninth time in two years.

The plane ran off the runway and burned.

As the fire spread, the passengers escaped by sliding down evacuation chutes. Ten people were injured, but no one died. That, critics say, is the reason the FAA has not acted to fix chronic breakdowns.

Count among those critics the former chief executive of the National Transportation Safety Board.

"The FAA often has notice of problems that it does not take positive action on until there is an accident, until there are deaths," said former NTSB Chairman Jim Burnett. "That's why we call them a tombstone agency."

Most of the nearly 1,000 chronic mechanical problems found by the Sentinel resulted in delays on the ground or nonemergency unscheduled landings -- touching down for repairs at places other than the intended destination.

But many of the breakdowns occurred in critical systems, such as landing gear or flight controls. They often resulted in repeated aborted takeoffs, which can be hazardous because a pilot often must decide in a split second whether to continue.

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