Airline cost-cutting worries safety experts

Faulty aircraft maintenance blamed for several crashes

December 14, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Airlines are spending less to maintain their planes. Mechanics are checking them less often. And federal oversight is stretched thin as regulators struggle to keep up with the growing use of outsourced service work and repairs.

The safety of one of the world's most reliable aviation systems is at stake.

Faulty maintenance contributed to three of the past five fatal airline accidents, including the crash last January of US Airways Express Flight 5481 in Charlotte, N.C., that killed 21.

It probably played a role in a fourth crash, which is being investigated, sources said.

John Goglia, a member of the five-person National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes, said cost-cutting has hurt maintenance. He says the industry needs to focus on improving it, or expect more disasters.

Airlines have invested millions to fix other serious problems. Better technology, design and training have sharply reduced crashes caused by pilot error and weather.

Faulty maintenance, an equally preventable problem, has never gotten the attention it deserves, experts say.

Now - as other causes have declined - crashes are more likely to be related to maintenance.

During an eight-month investigation, The Charlotte Observer interviewed dozens of mechanics, aviation safety experts and airline officials, examined thousands of pages of public documents and analyzed seven federal databases.

The investigation found that since 1994, maintenance problems have contributed to 42 percent of fatal airline accidents in the United States, excluding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That's up from 16 percent the previous decade.

During the past decade, 466 people died in eight U.S. accidents linked to maintenance problems. The decade before, seven maintenance-related crashes killed 160.

Since 1990, fines and other FAA maintenance-related enforcement actions against airlines and repair stations increased 57 percent, far exceeding the rate at which the number of flights grew. Maintenance has been the largest single source of enforcement actions in commercial aviation during the past decade.

The airline industry is aggressively cutting costs as it struggles to recover from its worst financial crisis. But airline officials say they have not compromised the quality of maintenance on their planes.

Air travel is "one of the safest modes of transportation," says Terry Kerber, vice president of maintenance and engineering at low-fare carrier ATA.

Overall, crash rates have dropped sharply since the 1960s. During the past decade, the chances that a U.S. commercial flight would end in a fatal crash were roughly one in 3.7 million. In the 1960s, the chances were about six times higher.

Since 1994, there have been 19 fatal accidents, compared with 45 in the previous decade.

"We learn from each event, and certainly we'll continue to make improvements. But we're part of a pretty safe system," said FAA Flight Standards Director Jim Ballough.

But Ballough acknowledged that the agency needs to do more to prevent maintenance errors.

The FAA usually spends more than $150 million a year on research, engineering and development. About $1 million of that typically goes toward research aimed at preventing maintenance mistakes.

Experts say maintenance has been overlooked partly because mechanics play a less visible role than pilots. Most pilots belong to the powerful Air Line Pilots Association, but mechanics are scattered among several unions and aren't as influential.

Many experts say the FAA has too few inspectors. When Nick Lacey headed the FAA's flight standards office from 1998 to 2001, he thought the agency needed about twice as many inspectors to oversee maintenance.

Over the past decade, many FAA inspectors say, their workload has increased faster than staffing, leaving less time for field surveillance. They blame budget constraints.

Increasingly, FAA inspectors are relying less on what they observe and more on what airlines and their repair shops say, inspector Linda Goodrich said.

The FAA has about 3,700 inspectors, and is requesting money for about 20 more, an agency spokesman said.

After the economic slowdown in 2000 and the terrorist attacks the next year, the airlines' fortunes fell sharply. The industry has lost about $25 billion since the start of 2001.

Airlines cut total maintenance spending more than $1 billion from 2000 to last year. Maintenance spending per flight dropped about 4 percent in that period.

For the top nine major airlines, maintenance spending per flight dropped 1 percent.

Some smaller airlines said they were able to cut spending by replacing old planes with new ones, which require far less maintenance.

Major airlines employ safety officials who have executive status, enabling them to push for high standards.

Most of the FAA's maintenance-related enforcements, including fines and reprimands, are directed against midsize and regional airlines.

Regional airlines have improved safety in recent years, largely in response to tougher federal regulations, which require operators of planes with 10 or more passengers to follow most of the same rules as larger airlines.

The NTSB's Goglia and others say they're worried that the regional airline industry's rapid growth will hurt maintenance.

"We often see when expansion happens too fast, the infrastructure can't keep up with it," he said. "I've been concerned."

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