Could This Negligence Lead to an Airline Catastrophe?

Could This Negligence Lead to an Airline Catastrophe?

On some budget airline flights in the U.S, something smells fishy — and it’s not the in-flight meals. It’s aircraft maintenance and what appears to be, at the very least, lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Some even go so far to imply outright collusion and attempts to bury the problem at the FAA, and a Florida Senator is calling for a full-blown investigation of the matter.

At the center of the storm are Allegiant Air, which serves several Kentucky cities, and its primary maintenance provider, AAR Aircraft Services, a division of AAR Corp, one of North America’s largest aviation service providers and also a contractor of some of its services to the U.S. Government. This simmering investigation by the media was first uncovered by the Tampa Bay Times in 2017 and was later joined by several installments on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” the most recent airing being in mid-April, 2018.

60 Minutes revealed that little had changed in the ensuing year after the Times began publishing its investigation showing Allegiant’s planes were four times as likely to fail during flight as those operated by other major U.S. airlines; other research focused on the FAA’s lax oversight of Allegiant (and its outsourced maintenance provider AAR Aircraft).

At the center of the story was Allegiant Flight 436. On August 17, 2015, it experienced a dangerous engine malfunction during takeoff.  Though the takeoff was safely aborted without serious injuries, the FAA investigator in charge of the incident reported that the plane never should have been flying. Records later revealed that over a period of time AAR had completely skipped several maintenance procedures and botched critical inspections of the plane – a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 more than 20 years old.

“Every stop-gap in place to enhance safety to a critical flight control was skipped, bypassed or improperly done,” according to inspector Carlos Flores’ FAA official incident report.  He recommended that AAR be fined the maximum amount possible, to prevent “similar potential tragedies” in the future.

Even though one FAA manager acknowledged Flores’ belief that “the conditions that created the safety risk originally hadn’t changed” at AAR, the agency didn’t fine the maintenance company; nor did the Administration demand any changes in AAR’s aircraft maintenance that would directly address inspectors’ concerns; nor did the FAA assign any further investigation of this specific incident. All it did was write AAR a “letter of correction;” then signed off on the matter before closing the case with a news release that said the problem had been solved.

Is this Just the Tip of a Dangerous Iceberg?

For years government watchdogs have been warning that the FAA’s oversight of airline repair facilities has been lacking. But after the latest “60 Minutes” installment about Allegiant, AAR and the FAA, Senator Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) is now calling for the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General to investigate. “We want this out in the full light of day and we want the FAA to crack down to make sure the airlines – all of them – are safe,” he says.

In order to keep costs low, U.S. airlines are relying more on outsourced maintenance (and, in some cases, offshore maintenance). The FAA’s watchdog office estimates that outsourced commercial and passenger aircraft maintenance has tripled since the year 2000.

AAR Corp (AAR’s parent company) also takes in billions of dollars in federal taxpayer money by delivering services that include aircraft maintenance, leasing and airlift services. In September, not even one year after the FAA finalized its Allegiant Flight 436 investigation, AAR Corp won a contract to maintain the air fleet that the U.S. State Department uses to combat international narcotics trafficking — an award worth $10 billion over nearly a 12-year term.

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