When the Federal Aviation Administration orders airlines to inspect and fix potential safety problems on passenger airliners, the agency expects airlines will get the required work done by the deadline.
That's especially true if the safety defect could cause a catastrophic explosion or fire aboard an aircraft. Such a concern led the FAA to issue in 2006 what's called an airworthiness directive for American Airlines to inspect and fix wire bundles in the wheel wells of MD-80s.
The FAA charges, however, that American Airlines failed to properly fix the problem by the March 5, 2008 deadline. Thus, the agency has proposed slapping the airline with a record $24.2 million fine for the alleged lapse.
An excerpt from an FAA news release which quotes the head of its parent department, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood:
"We put rules and regulations in place to keep the flying public safe," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "We expect operators to perform inspections and conduct regular and required maintenance in order to prevent safety issues. There can be no compromises when it comes to safety."
The FAA alleges American did not follow steps outlined in a 2006 Airworthiness Directive requiring operators to inspect wire bundles located in the wheel wells of MD-80 aircraft. The Airworthiness Directive, AD 2006-15-15, required a one-time general visual inspection by March 5, 2008 for chafing or signs of arcing of the wire bundle for the auxiliary hydraulic pump. It also required operators to perform corrective actions in accordance with the instructions of the applicable manufacturer's Service Bulletin.
The purpose of the Airworthiness Directive was to prevent the shorting of wires or arcing at the auxiliary hydraulic pump, which could result in loss of auxiliary hydraulic power or a fire in the wheel well of the aircraft. The Airworthiness Directive also sought to reduce the potential of an ignition source adjacent to the fuel tanks, which, in combination with the flammable vapors, could result in a fuel tank explosion.
American has 30 days from when it receives its bad-news letter from the FAA to respond.
The FAA, aircraft manufacturers and airlines became very concerned about wire bundles and the possibility of electrical sparks igniting a fuel or explosion after the loss of TWA 800 in 1996 off Long Island which resulted in the deaths of all 230 passengers.
That crash of a Boeing was blamed on an explosion after fuel tank vapor were ignited by an electrical short circuit.
Those concerns only increased after the in-flight fire aboard Swissair Flight 111, an MD 11, which crashed off Nova Scotia, killing 229 in 1998. While no conclusive cause for the fire was found, investigators suspected electrical arcing, perhaps in an in-flight entertainment system.
Getting back to the American Airlines and the MD 80s, once the airline started bumping against the FAA deadline in March 2008, it was forced to cancel hundreds of flights, disrupting the plans of thousands of passengers (you might have been among them) and flight crews as it rushed to get the required work done.
This led the vice president of the Allied Pilots Association union at time to write in a hotline message to his members:
S80 GROUNDING AND RE-INSPECTIONS PART III: After inconveniencing tens of thousands of our customers two weeks ago by failing to comply with a Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness directive affecting S-80 aircraft, American Airlines announced this afternoon that it is effectively grounding the entire S-80 fleet to re-inspect the re-inspection.
For those seeking more information on the MD-80 problem, the web site www.science.howstuffworks.com has a good explainer of the problem written around the time of the flight cancellations in 2008.