The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that faulty maintenance caused an American Airlines engine fire that forced an emergency landing in St. Louis in 2007. The safety board found that the pilots’ failure to complete a checklist during the emergency prolonged the fire, and American shortcomings in detecting maintenance flaws contributed. The findings may add pressure for maintenance improvement at AMR Corp.’s American, which was forced by regulators to ground planes last year for flawed inspections. In the St. Louis incident, workers repeatedly used a tool prohibited by the jet’s maker to manually start the engine. In making the announcement, NTSB Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker told reporters:
You can’t just be taking processes out of your hip pocket that are not the approved manuals, that are not the approved procedures, and expect to be able to get the appropriate results.
Fortunately, the landing of flight 1400 in St. Louis on September 28, 2007, didn’t result in injuries. The accident occurred shortly after the Boeing Co. MD-82 took off for Chicago with 138 passengers and a crew of five. The NTSB found that mechanics bent a component when they used the prohibited tool, leading to the fire. They used the method because other workers had failed to detect a worn-out filter that blocked normal starts, according to the board. It was found by the NTSB that mechanics replaced a start valve six times in 12 days before the accident, without realizing the actual problem was the filter.
According to a spokesman, American has learned a lesson from the incident. The carrier has taken steps that include replacing all filters in the fleet and emphasizing that company practices don’t call for the engine-start method utilized that day. American, the world’s second-largest airline, was forced by the Federal Aviation Administration in March and April 2008 to ground its fleet of 300 Boeing MD-80s to inspect and correct wiring in wheel wells. More than 3,300 flights were canceled and 360,000 passengers stranded during five days, as American examined and fixed wiring bundles.
In August, the FAA proposed fines of as much as $7.1 million against American over allegations of deferred maintenance, drug and alcohol testing deficiencies, and inadequate lighting inspections. American disagreed with the FAA findings and said the proposed fines were “excessive.” According to an NTSB investigator, the pilots in the St. Louis incident never completed a checklist for engine-fire emergencies, which delayed action to suppress the blaze. Board members also faulted the crew for informal conversation before the emergency, saying that there were a “host of serious problems going on in that cockpit.” Fortunately, even with all of these problems, there wasn’t a catastrophic accident. The pilots’ union, the Allied Pilots Association, had told the board in January that it believed the evidence pointed to a failure to follow American’s repair procedures, “clearly compromising the effectiveness of their maintenance reliability program.”
The NTSB also faulted American’s maintenance-monitoring system for not detecting the flaws, and recommended that the carrier correct deficiencies in the so-called Continuing Analysis and Surveillance System. On March 30th, the FAA began a comprehensive review of American’s safety and operations, which was triggered in part by the MD-80 inspection lapses last year. Similar evaluations have occurred at Southwest Airlines Co. and Continental Airlines Inc. American is the second-biggest airline after Delta Air Lines Inc.
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