Sky-high government fines against United, US Airways for safety violations

engineIn yet another sign that the government has adopted a “get tough” approach in dealing with the airline industry, the Federal Aviation Administration today proposed near-record penalties against two airlines for safety violations.

The FAA wants United Airlines to pay a $3.8 million civil penalty for allegedly operating one of its Boeing 737 aircraft on more than 200 flights after the carrier had violated its own maintenance procedures on one of the plane’s engines.

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The government also proposed a $5.4 million civil penalty against US Airways for allegedly operating eight aircraft on a total of 1,647 flights from October 2008 to January 2009 while not in compliance with certain airworthiness directives or the airline’s maintenance program.

The fines are said to be among the highest in the FAA’s history if measured by the number of planes involved.

Here’s what the FAA alleges:

On April 28, 2008, a United 737 returned to Denver after shutting down an engine due to low oil pressure indications. During teardown of the engine a week later, United mechanics found that two shop towels, instead of required protective caps, had been used to cover openings in the oil sump area when maintenance was done in December 2007.

As a result of United’s failure to follow its maintenance procedures, between February 10 and April 28, 2008 it flew the aircraft on more than 200 revenue flights when it was not in an airworthy condition.

United’s maintenance procedures specifically require use of protective caps or covers on all components that could be adversely affected by entry of foreign materials.

As for US Airways’ violations, here’s an excerpt. The full list is here.

US Airways, Inc. failed to meet the requirements of its Maintenance Policies and Procedures Manual, which required inspections related to engine work on a Boeing 757 aircraft. The airplane was flown on 505 flights from May 2, 2008 to December 3, 2008.

From October 20, 2008 to November 14, 2008, US Airways, Inc. operated one Boeing 767 aircraft on 51 flights after failing to perform the inspections, tests, and samplings required by its maintenance program on that aircraft.

From October 1, 2008 to November 24, 2008, US Airways, Inc. operated one Boeing 757 aircraft on 121 flights without proper maintenance.

You get the idea.

US Airways issued the following statement.

Safety is at the forefront of everything we do at US Airways. Today’s proposed penalty dates back to challenges we experienced during the integration of maintenance systems and processes on flights that occurred in 2008 and January 2009. Our team worked cooperatively with the FAA to investigate and correct any discrepancies to the FAA’s satisfaction.

Over the past nine months, we and the FAA have completed a formal review of our aircraft maintenance tracking systems as well as a comprehensive review of our maintenance program. This collaborative process included efforts to identify the issues, drill down to find the root cause and develop comprehensive fixes.

We appreciate the FAA’s guidance and oversight throughout this process. The changes we have made have improved upon an already solid maintenance program. With these challenges behind us, we look forward to continuing our relationship with the FAA to deliver on our common mission of safety first.

US Airways will continue to work with the FAA in a cooperative manner to promptly achieve a negotiated resolution of the FAA’s civil penalty proposal.” (LCCG)

So what does this mean to airline passengers?

Hard to say. To those wondering if their next plane will crash, I don’t think these fines indicate that air travel is any more — or less — safe. It does, however, suggest that some of the recent government steps to clamp down on airline misbehavior may not be a fluke.

That’s good news for travelers.

(Photo: Elsie esq./Flickr Creative Commons)