Thursday, March 27, 2008

Risk To Consumers From Lax Enforcement Of FAA’s Airworthiness Directives

Associated Press (AP) reported today on American Airline’s cancellation of 325 flights Wednesday, all on routes flying the MD-80 planes. The report made it sound as if the cancellation of these flights were voluntary. In fact, AP article reported that Delta Airlines, like a good citizen was “voluntarily re-inspecting wiring on 133 MD-88 and MD-90 airplanes.”

While it seems that the sudden desire by the airline companies to take immediate corrective actions on a potentially dangerous wiring problems in MD-80 and MD-90 planes is being pro-active, the FAA’s Airworthiness Directive (AD) database indicates otherwise.

According to the FAA AD database, the AD for MD-80 series came out in 2006 was made effective September 5, 2006. In the directive, airline companies had up to 18 months from the date of the directive to perform the inspection. Here is the important excerpt from the AD [bold and italics added for emphasis]:

“2006-15-15 McDonnell Douglas: Amendment 39-14696. Docket 2001-NM- 387-AD.
Applicability: Model DC-9-81 (MD-81), DC-9-82 (MD-82), DC-9-83 (MD-83), DC-9-87 (MD-87), and MD-88 airplanes; certificated in any category; as identified in Boeing Alert Service Bulletin MD80- 29A070, Revision 1, dated July 28, 2005. [bold and italic added for emphasis]

Compliance: Required as indicated, unless accomplished previously.
To prevent shorted wires or arcing at the auxiliary hydraulic pump, which could result in loss of auxiliary hydraulic power, or a fire in the wheel well of the airplane; and to reduce the potential of an ignition source adjacent to the fuel tanks, which, in combination with flammable fuel vapors, could result in a fuel tank explosion and consequent loss of the airplane; accomplish the following:

One-Time Inspection
(a) For airplanes in Configurations 1 through 4, as defined in Boeing Alert Service Bulletin MD80-29A070, Revision 1, dated July 28, 2005: Within 18 months after the effective date of this AD, do a one-time general visual inspection for chafing or signs of arcing of the wire bundle for the auxiliary hydraulic pump, and do all applicable corrective and other specified actions, in accordance with the Accomplishment Instructions of the service bulletin. Accomplish all applicable corrective actions before further flight after the inspection.”
According to the FAA AD, this is a serious problem where the wiring bundle may cause the loss of the airplane. According to the AD, there are “…approximately 1,063 airplanes of the affected design in the worldwide fleet. We estimate that 732 airplanes of U.S. registry… the cost impact of this AD on U.S. operators is estimated to be up to $954,528, or up to $1,304 per airplane.”

So, if this was a critical risk – and I happen to think that a risk of a loss of an airplane is a critical risk – then why are the airline companies like American and Delta all of a sudden performing ‘voluntary’ inspections? Could it be that the 18-month period has already passed and the airline companies found themselves in violation? (Calculated from September 5, 2006, the 18-month period ended on March 5, 2008.)

This is a clear case of blatant disregard for safety on the part of the airline companies. The cost of the corrective action was approximately $1,304 per plane. If all 732 U.S. registered airplanes had been inspected and any defects corrected in the mandated 18-month period, then the airline companies would have simply met their requirements. However, companies like American and Delta are now just getting around to their fleet of MD-80 (and MD-90s for Delta).

Luckily for the flying public, there has not been any serious incident from the gross and willful neglect by these two airline companies. However, one is reminded of the terrible TWA Flight 800 incident, which the investigators concluded was most probably caused by a frayed wiring near the center tank, which ignited the fumes. This is the same issue that the FAA AD is noting for MD-80.

This news comes on the heel of Southwest having to ground 44 of its aging B737s to perform inspection for fatal metal fatigue, which the FAA stated that Southwest neglected to perform in 2006 and 2007.

“In some cases, according to the documents the FAA provided to congressional investigators, the planes flew for 30 months past government inspection deadlines and should have grounded them until the inspections could be completed.”

According to Wikipedia’s most recently available information, American Airlines has total of 336 MD-80 series planes, Delta Airline has as a total of 133 MD-80 series, Northwest has a total of 102 MD-80 series planes, Alitalia has a total of 75 MD-80 series planes, SAS has a total of 42 MD-80 series planes, and Allegiant Airline has a total of 36 MD-80 series planes. This accounts for 724 MD-80 series planes out of a total estimated of 1,063 per the FAA AD. We do know that China is flying a lot of the MD-80 series planes, so that may account for some. Additionally, there are other nations flying MD-80 series planes because it is less expensive to purchase, about $4 million per plane, according to NY Times.

Hopefully this is a wakeup call to the FAA to start enforcing the rules and advisories that they have put out. Until then, do expect to see a lot more of similar ‘voluntary’ inspections by the airliners. I guess I will be avoiding flying on MD-80/MD-90/and B737 for a while.

May your travels be safe!

Ed Kim
DISCLOSURE: The author holds no long or short positions in airline companies at this time.

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