United, US Airways Receive Big Fines for Maintenance Problems

Both US Airways and United received a present from Uncle Sam yesterday in the form of some hefty fines ($5.4 million and $3.8 million, respectively) for maintenance violations. Should we all run away screaming from these airlines? I don’t think so, but these are both quite serious. The United fine is actually the most disturbing one I’ve seen in a long time. [Ok, maybe it’s not as disturbing as I originally thought.]

United’s $3.8 million fine was actually more massive than the one levied on US Airways on a per incident basis because United’s was for a single violation on one airplane.United's Engine Towel Problem What the heck did they do? At least one enterprising mechanic apparently decided to use a shop towel as an airplane part. This is even worse than it sounds.

In December 2007, a single 737 went into the shop for maintenance. Someone decided to use “two shop towels instead of required protective caps . . . to cover openings in the oil sump area.” That’s just unreal and frightening.

[After speaking to United spokesperson Megan McCarthy, I think this needs to be clarified. The caps are only supposed to be used during the maintenance procedure and then removed. So this was not meant to be a flying replacement. This does mean that two things went wrong.

1) Someone used shop towels instead of caps as prescribed by the maintenance procedures
2) Someone failed to remove the towels after the work was completed.

But these two things together are far less frightening than what I originally thought.]

What’s more frightening is how they found out about it. The plane kept flying in this condition for more than 200 flights until April 28, 2008. On that day, the airplane left Denver and then promptly returned after shutting down an engine due to low oil pressure. That’s when maintenance found the problem.

Holy crap.

As soon as United management found out about it, they self-reported it to the feds, as they should, but there are still so many unanswered questions. Who did this? Was it on purpose as an act of revenge against the airline or was it simply a mistake? If it was a mistake, shouldn’t someone else have caught it somehow?

[Now that I have a clearer understanding of what happened, it seems highly unlikely that this was intentional. Maybe using towels instead of caps was intentional but that seems relatively minor. Leaving the towel in there? My guess is that someone screwed up. United says that it has made some procedural changes to make sure these things get caught, but they wouldn’t go in to details.

What I don’t understand is why they haven’t broadcasted this more publicly, because I’ve heard a lot of people concerned about the incident.]

During an interview with Houston’s NewsRadio 740 yesterday, I was asked whether I thought additional governmental oversight was necessary due to some of these issues. I just can’t see how this would have been caught by more inspectors. They can’t be everywhere, all the time. I just hope United has hunted down the guy who did this and fired him (or them).

For US Airways, it was a different story. They were fined for a bunch of different things regarding maintenance lapses during the merger integration. Most significantly, they had a single Embraer 190 that flew 19 flights without inspecting the cargo door to make sure it wouldn’t open during flight. They also had a couple of A320s the flew some flights without being inspected for potential landing gear cracks. Both of these were required by Airworthiness Directives and that’s a big deal.

They also had a bunch of other problems here and there on a variety of aircraft. Read here for all the details. Just the simple fact there are enough violations here that I don’t even list them all shows that there could be some major systemic issue, right? It appears that way, but US Airways says it has been fixed.

As usual, US Airways was very quick to publicly respond about this problem. I’ll let them explain . . .

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.

So this has been known for quite awhile, obviously, and clearly the FAA is satisfied that the problem is solved or they wouldn’t let them continue flying. I imagine that they will be kept on a very, very short leash for awhile. That’s a good thing.

But it does point to issues with mergers. Combining maintenance programs is no simple task. I hope the FAA is keeping that in mind as it watches the Delta/Northwest integration proceed.

Both of these are some very serious fines. That being said, I still wouldn’t hesitate to fly either of them today.

[Updated 10/15 @ 320p to clarify the United incident]

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