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]

20 Responses to United, US Airways Receive Big Fines for Maintenance Problems

  1. David SFeastbay says:

    If someone at one airline can use towels as parts, someone at another can think ‘screw it, let the door open it’s time for my break’. Since Republic is buying the E190′s from US they must now be thinking ‘gee what else might be wrong that wasn’t taken care of’.

    I wonder one day if we will have consumer laws that say the aircraft numbers must be reported in any story about airplanes issues/problems and/or at boarding time the agents must inform passengers that the aircraft was the one involved in whaterver issue and let the passenger decide if they want to fly on that aircraft. We have so many other laws for consumer rights, when will someone come up with pushing for this one? Can you just see 200 people delaying a flight because they are wondering if other towels (or whatever) were used incorrectly or other parts not inspected and is the plane safe to travel on. Right that would go over well.

  2. JayB says:

    The maintenance/safety issue has got to concern us all. Particularly, as we continue to see more and more service provided by aircraft not owned by the carrier selling us the ticket. “Operated by….”

    The Washington Post today, discussing the airline safety bill moving through Congress, notes that half of the commercial flights today in the US are operated by a contractor. Are we that far off from where some major airline, like UA, will be providing 100% of its services using aircraft provided by a contractor? Can we be assured these arrangements will be monitored sufficiently to ensure no degradation of safety from when the airline provided all the service using its own aircraft?

    Not saying that these arrangements are not being adequately monitored, only that I don’t feel particularly good about this trend.

  3. Emma says:

    My list of airlines “not to fly” is getting quite long….

  4. Honestly, I feel much better flying US Airways than I did United.

    US Airways’s problems seem like much more of a record keeping issue than actual maintenance issues. (But of course if you don’t have the paper that said you did the maintenance, it didn’t happen.)

    United’s problem on the other hand is just pure negligence. I’d fire the mechanic and write his supervisor up for good measure.

  5. Bobber says:

    I’m surprised they (UA) didn’t get a fine over the fire on the 777 at LHR in February 2007. Apparently, the pilots didn’t notice there was a fire for 14 minutes after it had been smouldering, despite the stewardesses telling them they could smell burning.

  6. nigel says:

    It is one aircraft and one mechanic. This is nowhere near the blatent violations seen at Southwest or some of the third world airlines.

  7. nigel wrote:

    It is one aircraft and one mechanic. This is nowhere near the blatent violations seen at Southwest or some of the third world airlines.

    Yeah, but Southwest thought they were doing something correct, but messed up on the paperwork.

    There should have been no question in anyones mine that the actions of United’s mechanics were unacceptable. That a mechanic even did this points toward a huge cultural issue, which is the general problem I see with United.

    US Airways’s problems point toward issues with their merger, they didn’t execute it as well as they should have, and they had to clean up a bunch afterwards. This isn’t news to anyone who has followed their merger.

  8. CF says:

    Ok, I now have received some clarification from United spokesperson Megan McCarthy and I’m going to be updating the post. The caps that United should have used should only be used for the maintenance procedure itself. Then they are removed. So, there were two things that happened here in the United issue.

    1) Someone used a shop towel instead of a cap for maintenance

    2) Someone didn’t remove the shop towel when maintenance was done

    To me, this now sounds highly unlikely that it would be intentional. Knowing that it should have been removed tells me that they took a little shortcut to perform the maintenance (not great but certainly not that bad) and then forgot to remove the towel.

    United says it has made some procedural changes to make sure it won’t happen again but they won’t go into details.

  9. ChicagoFlyer says:

    Three years ago, I was on a United 777 from O’Hare to Dulles which had an aborted takeoff. I was sitting over the trailing edge of the wing, and as we pulled off the runway, I looked out and saw the flaps going down. Pretty scary, especially since I had my kids with me.

    The pilot literally didn’t say anything. Just went around and took off again. When we got to Dulles, I tried in vain for about an hour to get somebody at United to pay attention and initiate an inquiry. I tried everyone I could find at Dulles and even called Chicago HQ to see if anyone there was interested. Eventually I gave up and reported the incident to the FAA.

    What I learned from the FAA, which did investigate, made me feel a little better about the safety situation, but no better about United. Apparently, between gate and takeoff we were reassigned to a shorter runway that required more flaps than had been set, and the pilots failed to make the adjustment before starting the takeoff roll. The FAA inspector said that the pilot self-reported (apparently he cares what the FAA thinks but not what his passengers think), and that if he had continued with the takeoff we would have been OK, although we would have taken off after the runway’s designated abort point. The inspector also said that a 777 will not take off unless the flaps are extended at least partway.

    That said, I was and remain appalled at the complete lack of interest shown by United. I also was and remain appalled by the pilot’s behavior in not making an announcement in order to reassure the passengers and cabin crew. This is not the kind of performance that makes one want to fly an airline, is it?

  10. David SFeastbay says:

    CF United says it has made some procedural changes to make sure it won’t happen again but they won’t go into details.

    You would think the ‘procedure’ to use a cap would have been enough. If that one simple procedure wasn’t followed what new procedure would be? You know they aren’t going to hire more people so everyone is connected at the hip with another person to make sure everything is done right.

  11. David SFeastbay says:

    @ ChicagoFlyer:
    Sounds like he didn’t want to tell the passengers that he screwed up and they would be afraid to fly with him. Or he’s an honest man and didn’t want to follow standard airline regulations and just blame it on air traffic control like they do everything else.

  12. CF says:

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    You would think the ‘procedure’ to use a cap would have been enough. If that one simple procedure wasn’t followed what new procedure would be?

    My sense is that this was referring more to having multiple sets of eyes looking at something – just duplicating internal oversight. She didn’t say that explicitly, but I think it was probably along those lines.

  13. Peter T says:

    I just hope United has hunted down the guy who did this and fired him (or them).

    I don’t. There is an ‘open and honest’ reporting culture in the airlines as it is far more important to have a fault reported than an aircraft fly with a defect because someone feared they might lose their job. It is very rarely just one person that causes an incident/accident and only by having an open culture for reporting mistakes can a dangerous process or chain of events be stopped. In this case, it was the airline that reported the incident. Could they have hidden this? Probably. Did they know they would be fined for the breach? Almost certainly yes. But they did report it on the grounds that it may stop someone at another airline doing the same and prevent another engine failure – perhaps in a less benign situation such as at V1 with gusty winds, a high payload and wet runway.

  14. Steve Laurance says:

    I was a United Airlines pilot for 30 years. We had the finest maintenance in the business. If we knew all the details of this incident, which we don’t, I think we’d find that it was little more than a minor infraction. Otherwise, the airplane wouldn’t have flown that many times without incident. I hope all the perfect people who have never made a mistake, will please explain how they do it to us that are only human.

  15. Dan says:

    Steve Laurance wrote:

    I was a United Airlines pilot for 30 years. We had the finest maintenance in the business. If we knew all the details of this incident, which we don’t, I think we’d find that it was little more than a minor infraction. Otherwise, the airplane wouldn’t have flown that many times without incident. I hope all the perfect people who have never made a mistake, will please explain how they do it to us that are only human.

    Steve, I haven’t been around the industry nearly as long as you have, but my first response reading this was: “shrug” someone is blowing this way out of proportion.

    I’m curious about something else, however… what would have happened if they were using the required protective caps instead of the shop towels? Would there have been the same inflight problem? If so, would the commenters here still be calling for the mech’s firing? For a one-time instance, I wouldn’t call for a guy’s head on a silver platter. Only if he has a reputation for being sloppy and lazy. (And truth be told, I bet two people screwed up — the guy who didn’t remove the caps/rags, and the guy who was supposed to sign off that the caps/rags were removed prior to flight.)

  16. I prefer to not think about this, but its of great importance. If only everything was done correctly…

  17. CoCreatr says:

    Is safety being systematically subcontracted to the lowest bidder?

  18. CF says:

    CoCreatr wrote:

    Is safety being systematically subcontracted to the lowest bidder?

    This has nothing to do with subcontracting. The United incident was done in-house.

  19. Us air platinum says:

    Gout us air flights in 24 hrs and two major delays for maintenance. Last month, 12 flights and 4 maintenance delays. While it good that these issues are nmh detected, how could this many non-scheduled maintenance items pop up??

  20. Pingback: FOD on Purpose?

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