Letter to the FAA

Dear FAA,

I recently read the NTSB’s report and findings on Alaska Air flight 261. One of my neighbors was killed on the flight. I was in Puerto Vallarta on the day of the crash. I had flown into Puerto Vallarta on an Alaska flight.

One of the recommendations in the NTSB report was that the FAA should follow up on it’s oversight of maintenance at Alaska Air. The report stated that the FAA made a review of Alaska Air’s maintenance program and found several deficiencies. A follow up review revealed that several problems still existed at Alaska. The NTSB report suggested that further oversight of Alaska Air by the FAA is still needed.

I would like to know what steps the FAA has taken to ensure that maintenance at Alaska Air is being done correctly. If there is something wrong at Alaska Air, why is the airline allowed to operate?

I am expressly concerned, not only since my neighbor needlessly died in what the NTSB termed a maintenance accident, but because I intend to fly with my family on Alaska Air next month. We had heard about the FAA oversight of the Alaska Maintenance program and believed that the problems at Alaska had been corrected. It has been three years since flight 261 crashed into the Pacific killing all 88 aboard. That would be ample time in my mind for the FAA to have acted in a diligent manner to correct deficiencies at Alaska. Now with the recent NTSB report we see that further follow-up oversight at Alaska is needed and recommended.

This is very unsettling since we are booked on an Alaska flight less than 30 days from now. Can you assure me that the FAA has done everything that needs to be done at Alaska Air? Would you characterize Alaska Air’s fleet as well maintained and now meets the scrutiny of the FAA?

I need to know what the FAA knows about Alaska Air, and I need to know soon. Please respond to my questions about Alaska Air as soon as possible.

Sincerely Yours,

Grant A. Silvey, PE


Dear Mr. Silvey:

We have been asked to respond to your recent e-mail regarding the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) recent findings on Alaska Airlines flight 261. Please accept our sincere condolences for the loss of your neighbor in that tragic accident.

As you indicated, the NTSB was critical of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) oversight of the company at the time of the accident. Both before and after the accident we have taken actions to strengthen the FAA’s surveillance of the carrier. Staffing at the Alaska Airlines Certificate Management Office (ASAA CMO), the FAA organization responsible for oversight of the airline has increased from 15 to 37 since the accident. In addition, 10 remotely sited inspectors assist in conducting surveillance of the carrier in Anchorage, Oakland and Los Angeles.

We also conducted a special national safety inspection (NSI) of the airline following the accident. In response to the FAA’s proposal to suspend the carrier’s heavy maintenance authorization following the NSI, Alaska Airlines proposed an action plan that implemented significant changes in maintenance, operations and management. A FAA safety panel that included inspectors from the local, regional and national levels monitored performance of this action plan to completion. Top level management at the airline continues to meet with the CMO manager and supervisory inspectors on a quarterly basis to provide updates.

FAA regulations mandate that airlines serving the general public maintain the highest level of safety. Alaska Airlines has made significant changes since the accident in order to maintain that standard. We believe the current structure of the Alaska CMO is sufficient to allow the FAA to provide the oversight necessary to make sure the airline maintains the highest level of safety and we are confident that standard is currently being met.

On a personal note, since the accident I have bought several tickets for my wife and myself to go on vacation on Alaska Airlines. Those trips included like yours, a trip to Mexico and as recent as November to Phoenix. I can assure you that I feel comfortable with the service and reliability of Alaska Airlines aircraft.

Sincerely,

Timothy L. Miller
Alaska Airlines Principal Maintenance Inspector

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Letter to the FAA

Flight 222

Holy shit! What a horrifying experience! So what did the air crew do after you safely landed – I understand they didn’t give any explanation- but what did they tell the passengers at the time, how did they respond to your shall we say inconvenience?

Each airline has a process by which every incident is reviewed, the crew interviewed – faa and I forget who else are involved. Usually the crew is videotaped. These are used as learning experiences and each incident has value in that something can be learned to prevent further occurances, or techniques to respond to incidents are derived. The results are not shared with the public, but some response is definitely in order.
Keep plugging away – try the interstate commerce commission or whatever it’s called. They may be more forthcoming than the faa, who are notoriously tightlipped.

We’re trained to assess passengers as they board, pick out who we would ask for assistance in the event of an emergency. We look for people who seem calm under pressure, capable, strong enough to open the door if necessary. There are specific words we use in evacuation. Did the flight attendant say “you – come with me” ? Do this, do that. “Get the people out.”

Sometimes I dream the phrases.

Anyway, good luck in your search for answers. There must be a local weekly alternative newspaper in Seattle, enlist their help. (was the aircraft a Boeing??)

ciao
Judy


Hey Judy,

Holy shit! What a horrifying experience! So what did the air crew do after you safely landed – I understand they didn’t give any explanation- but what did they tell the passengers at the time, how did they respond to your shall we say inconvenience?

Mostly, they hustled us onto another plane. There were two other planes from Seattle that had to connect with 222 in LA, combining for the one flight to Mexico. They gave me free cognacs on the flight to LA. I needed them.

Each airline has a process by which every incident is reviewed, the crew interviewed – faa and I forget who else are involved. Usually the crew is videotaped. These are used as learning experiences and each incident has value in that something can be learned to prevent further occurances, or techniques to respond to incidents are derived. The results are not shared with the public, but some response is definitely in order.

You tell them that, wouldja? They obviously don’t care what I have to say.

We’re trained to assess passengers as they board, pick out who we would ask for assistance in the event of an emergency. We look for people who seem calm under pressure, capable, strong enough to open the door if necessary. There are specific words we use in evacuation. Did the flight attendant say “you – come with me” ? Do this, do that. “Get the people out.”

I was minding my own business, sitting at a window seat forward of the wing, trying to come to terms with what I expected was going to be an untimely and ignominious demise. I really didn’t want to talk to anybody at that moment. Then a stew sticks her head into the row and says, “Sir, would you please come with me?”

“Why?”

“We may need your help at the back of the plane, in case the rear emergency exit doesn’t open.”

Oh, that’s fucking GREAT! I don’t want to be at the back of the plane to begin with, which is why I always sit forward of the wing. Now she’s filling my head with visions of wings and engines digging into the tarmac, sending huge chunks of metal and flaming jet fuel right into my face. Like I needed that.

Yeah, I went back there, but I wasn’t the least bit happy about it. Further, the stew herself was practically in tears, trying to keep it together. Afterwards, she told me it’s the first time anything like that had ever happened to her, and all she could think of (beyond the immediate situation) was her two small kids at home.

We landed without incident, and I didn’t have to pop open the rear door. That didn’t make the ride any less scary.

The plane? Funny you should ask. It was an MD-80, piece of shit inherited from Boeing’s takeover of Lockheed and subject to the exceptional Alaska “maintenance” program. In the next few weeks there was a spate of MD-80 incidents, including Flight 261 and a plane that came into SFO with an engine on fire. The FAA should have grounded all of them IMMEDIATELY, but that would have meant putting people’s safety above airline profits. And boy howdy, we sure can’t do that. So when all this shit started to be uncovered about Alaska and their maintenance falsifications, I was way ahead of the curve. Alaska should have had its license to fly revoked on the spot.

I haven’t flown Alaska since, except to get home from Mexico two years ago. And those assholes made it just about as incovenient as they could. I used some Continental miles for the ticket, after Alaska and Continental made their co-share deal. I flew into Manzanillo, 15 minutes from my hotel. When I wanted to come home several weeks later, Alaska told me there were no seats available on the Manzanillo planes, and that I had to come back via Puerto Vallarta. PV is a four hour Mexican bus ride and a major hassle away. I went to the ZLO airport to talk with a super, and she told me the only person who could help me was at a counter in PV. So, either way I was being sent back on the long bus. Meanwhile, I’m watching all my other buddies getting stand-by seats on the same planes I’m being told are sold out!

The real story? Because I used my Continental miles instead of my Alaska miles, they dropped me to the bottom of the food chain. They wouldn’t admit this to my face, of course, but I had a mole in the agency who copped to it. The next morning I dialed Alaska’s stateside 800 number and chewed out one of their supervisors. I told him, “After what I’ve been through with you guys, and after you just killed some people I know!, you’re lucky I’m flying with you at all. The least you can do is get me on a freakin’ local plane!” Long silent pause on the other end of the line, followed by, “Would you like a window or aisle seat, sir?” Sheesh.

With all this in the hopper, I find it astounding that not one single media person in this market has seen fit to follow up on my letters. And believe me, I started e-mailing them from Mexico two-and-a-half years ago.

Jef

Flight 222

Alaska 261/222 – Two years later, still no answers

Dear Mr. Fancher and the editorial staff of the Times:

Two years ago this week I was involved in an emergency situation involving an Alaska Airlines MD-80 at Sea-Tac Airport. I wrote you and other members of the media about it extensively. Yet, a full two years later, and on the anniversary of the Flight 261 tragedy, not a one of you has seen fit to follow up on my letter and the terrifying moments experienced by the passengers on my flight.

In fact, despite all your coverage of Alaska Airlines and its problems, the incident on Flight 222 has gone wholly unreported. Why is that?

To recap:

On January 20th, eleven days prior to the Flight 261 disaster, a plane load of Alaska passengers, which included me, thought we were due to be tarmac cinders. Our flight, Alaska 222, bound for Manzanillo via Los Angeles, blew something on take-off from Sea-Tac Airport. We heard several loud bangs from the back of the aircraft. A few seconds later there were two more, and the plane lurched to the right. One woman passenger screamed in obvious apprehension, “Oh no!”

A minute passed before the pilot finally announced there was a problem, and we’d have to turn around and make an immediate emergency landing. An extremely distressed flight attendant gave us instructions for assuming the crash position. One passenger took out a marking pen and wrote a farewell message to his girlfriend on a drop-down tray. We all thought our lives were over, especially me, when I was asked to come to the rear of the plane to assist the attendants in case the rear emergency door didn’t open during the landing procedure.

At no time during the emergency, nor any time since, has Alaska Airlines informed us what happened on that flight. No apologies, no explanations, no nothing! I received no communication from the airline whatsoever, despite five months of trying to get answers. The FAA was “unable” to provide information because Alaska hadn’t filed any!

What continues to tear at me is the possibility that my plane’s malfunction could have been identical to Flight 261’s. When the FAA later reported hearing “two loud bangs from the back of the aircraft” on 261’s cockpit voice recorder, I immediately thought about what happened on Flight 222. Perhaps the tragedy of 261 could have been averted if someone at Alaska had been paying attention. Was it the same plane? Was it the same problem? Nobody knows because Alaska has never told us anything! I was scheduled to fly back from Puerto Vallarta on Alaska. I could have been on Flight 261. As it turns out, my parents were returning from Puerto Vallarta on an Alaska flight at the same time 261 went down. It’s only by chance they were not obliterated on Flight 261.

My opinion, which I have stated repeatedly since February 1, 2000, is that Alaska Airlines deserves to be ripped open and examined from the bottom up. Even more so than has already occurred. In the three years prior to the 261 and 222 incidents, I watched the airline steadily deteriorate as bean counters made the calls and cut corners. We have all now seen the results. I applauded the FAA’s decision to hold Alaska accountable, and shut them down if the situation warrants, but I have not been impressed with the results so far.

As Alaska CEO John Kelly and his spin doctors continue their damage control press conferences, which we will no doubt be treated to again this coming Thursday, I still wonder why I should ever get on another Alaska plane. I haven’t done so since my return from Mexico two years ago, and I see no reason to change my mind any time soon.

I want some answers! I want to know what happened on my flight. I want to know why it’s being hushed up. I want to know if the failures on Flights 222 and 261 were related. And I’d really like to know why nobody in the massive Seattle media market thinks the Flight 222 incident is important enough to expose and thoroughly investigate.

Yes, just as you did, I knew people on Flight 261. Yes, I continue to mourn their loss. It should never have happened. And maybe — just maybe — it wouldn’t have if someone had been paying attention on January 20, 2000, eleven days earlier.

Sincerely yours,

Jef Jaisun
Seattle

Alaska 261/222 – Two years later, still no answers

Alaska 261: first there was Flight 222

Hey Jef,

Thanks for copying me on the flight incident. Did you hear back this time? And do I understand that the FAA DID acknowledge that Alaska reported SOME problem on board?

Mike Webb
KIRO Radio


Mike,

Nope, I ain’t heard shit. My pal Casey Corr, a Times editorialist (and striker who has yet to be called back) has passed it on to Chuck Taylor, a Times aerospace reporter and former editor in chief of the Union Record. Maybe Chuck will get interested.

Re the FAA: When I contacted them initially (I think it was in June), their response was something to the effect of, “Alaska filed the bare minimum required, acknowledging there was an incident. No details. That’s all we have, so we really can’t tell you anything more than you already know.” When I pressed for more info, I was essentially blown off, being advised to file a FOIA request “to get more details…that way they have to respond.” The FAA guy also allowed as to how Alaska had a full year to file any additional information. Now that it’s been a full year, I should probably go back and ask what’s in the FAA file. But at this point I would just as soon it were done by a reporter, talk show host or NTSB investigator. Obviously, passengers like me don’t count much at the local FAA or Alaska.

Jef



December 26, 2000

Dear Mr. Wallace

Thank you for you excellent coverage of the NTSB’s Flight 261 hearings. I hope you will find the following of interest, as well.

Coverage of Alaska Airlines’ problems has omitted at least one other recent critical incident that has so far gone unreported.

On January 20th, 2000, 11 days before the Flight 261 disaster, a plane load of Alaska passengers departing Sea-Tac airport thought we were due to be tarmac cinders. Our flight, Alaska 222, was an MD-80 bound for Manzanillo via Los Angeles. As we began to climb during take-off, something literally blew up. We heard several loud bangs from the back of the aircraft, then a few seconds later there were two more, and the plane lurched to the right. One woman passenger screamed in obvious fright, “Oh no!”

A minute passed before the pilot finally announced there was a problem, and we’d have to turn around and make an immediate emergency landing. An extremely distressed flight attendant gave us instructions for assuming the crash position. One passenger took out a marking pen and wrote a farewell message to his girlfriend on a drop-down tray. We all thought we were toast, especially me, when I was asked to come to the rear of the plane to assist the attendants in case the rear emergency door didn’t deploy during the landing procedure.

At no time during the emergency, or any time since, has Alaska Airlines informed us what happened on that flight. No apologies, no explanations, no nothing! I have received no communication from the airline whatsoever, despite 11 months of trying to get answers. The FAA was unable to provide information because (they said) Alaska hadn’t filed any!

What also tears at me is the possibility, however remote, that what happened to my flight could have been related –or, in fact, identical– to Flight 261. When the FAA later reported hearing “two loud bangs from the back of the aircraft” on 261’s cockpit voice recorder, a cold chill went through me. I immediately thought about what happened on Flight 222. Perhaps the tragedy of 261 could have been averted had someone at Alaska been paying attention. Was it the same plane? Was it the same problem? Nobody knows because Alaska hasn’t told us anything! I was scheduled to fly back from Puerto Vallarta. I could have been on Flight 261. As it turns out, my parents *were* flying back from Puerto Vallarta on an Alaska flight at the same time 261 went down. That’s a little too close for my comfort. Worse, I knew people on Flight 261.

Here is my list of unanswered questions for John Kelly and the rest of his pals at Alaska Airlines.

1. What happened to Alaska Flight 222 from SeaTac on the morning of
January 20, 2000?
2. I want a copy of the incident report. Where do I get it?
3. What happened to the “engine” we supposedly blew on take-off?
4. Where is that “engine” now?
5. What Alaska PLANE number was Flight 222 on Jan 20th?
6. Was it the same plane number as Flight 261?
7. If not, did the 261 plane receive 222’s “engine?”
8. I want a copy of the passenger list, complete with addresses and phone numbers of everyone on Flight 222/ Jan 20, 2000. How do I get it?

As the evidence from the NTSB hearings continue to point at lax maintenance by Alaska, I sit here wondering why I should ever get on another Alaska plane. Maybe the problem on 261 was indeed related to the jack screw assembly, but that doesn’t begin to answer what happened on Flight 222. Perhaps you can help me find those answers.

Thank you very much

Sincerely yours,

Jef Jaisun


Dear James,

I haven’t received a response from you since I e-mailed you the letter below over a month ago. So I guess the possibility that the Flight 261 disaster may have been preventable as late as 11 days prior is not an issue with you. However, I note with extreme distress in your P-I article today that not only was there a suspect arrangement between Alaska Airlines and the local FAA office, but that FAA officials conspired to exclude the Flight 261 investigation from the Freedom of Information Act. It was these same local FAA officials whom I contacted last spring regarding my experience on Flight 222. And you know what they told me? “Alaska didn’t tell us much about the emergency on your flight. You should file a Freedom of Information Act request.”

Now I know what they were really telling me: “Get lost!”

I may never find out what happened to Flight 222. You won’t, either. It’s just too bad nobody around here apparently has the guts, the curiosity or the dedication to the truth to find out if the Flight 222 emergency could have been related to Flight 261’s subsequent fatal plunge.

Sincerely yours,

Jef Jaisun

Alaska 261: first there was Flight 222

PV Memorial for Flight #261

Hola amigos,

Wednesday will be the anniversary of the crash of Alaska Flight 261. There are numerous memorials planned for the day. On February 15 there will be a dedication ceremony in Puerto Vallarta, in case any of you are there and feel like attending. Here’s the info from today’s Seattle Times, which has several very fine stories on the people who perished on the flight, in case anyone wants to read them.
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/SeattleTimes.woa/wa/

“A memorial in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Joe and Linda Knight, co-pastors of The Rock Church of Monroe, WA, who were in Mexico to work with children living in a city dump, is in the final stages of construction. The memorial — a community shower, medical clinic and dining area for the children of about 200 families who live in filth and poverty in shanties and lean-tos at the dump — will be dedicated Feb. 15.

“Seattle Times readers donated $24,000 to the project. The Puerto Vallarta City Council donated the land for the center. … Americans who live on yachts in the resort’s harbor have assisted in the project. In addition, several churches in the Seattle area have been working with the congregation at Perdon y Amistad, a non-denominational church in Puerto Vallarta, to provide regular meals to the children. Tax-deductible donations to the combined ministries may be sent to Feed the Children in Puerto Vallarta, 718 Griffin Ave, PMB 207, Enumclaw, WA.”

El Jefe

PV Memorial for Flight #261

Flights to Mexico: Alaska Cops Out

Dear Alaska Airlines:

Last January 20th I was on an Alaska Airline flight #222 that took off from Sea-Tac for Manzanillo, via Los Angeles. Less than two minutes after take-off, several loud banging noises were heard from the rear of the airplane. We immediately turned around and made an emergency landing at Sea-Tac, and most of us on that plane were convinced we were going to die on that runway. This was 11 days before Flight 261 went down in the ocean.

To date, your airline has not told any of us what happened on our flight, nor has it responded to my questions concerning that incident. The FAA says you did not file a detailed incident report.

For these reasons, and many more that have come to light in the past eight months, I have refused to fly Alaska planes. I have no intention of getting on another one of your MD-80s.

This brings up my forthcoming annual winter visit to Manzanillo. I notice in your recent promotional contest to Cabo San Lucas, you advertised it as being a Boeing 737 plane. I would like to know when, if ever, you plan to offer 737 flights to Manzanillo. I would like to know now, so that I may plan my winter vacation schedule accordingly. If you have no plans other than to fly MD-80s on that route, I will make other arrangements.

Sincerely yours,

Jef Jaisun


Dear Alaska,

I’m trying to find a flight to either Manzanillo or Puerto Vallarto from Seattle. I have never liked flying on the MD 80 planes. The flight crews call them Mad Dogs and hate them. The engine noise in the rear is near intolerable. The mechanical safety of these planes has been called into question with last year’s fateful flight out of PRV. I cannot bring myself to book a flight on an MD aircraft, especially since one of the persons that died on that flight out of PVR was a neighbor.

I want to know what Alaska’s policy is now regarding the wear tolerances on key control elements such as the rear stabilizer jack screw? I’d like to think that when tolerances get to a ten thousandth away from replacement, that remeasurement 6 times to justify not replacing the part is not going to happen. Especially when the next heavy check of that part won’t be for another 2 years. That’s fool hardy at best and put the lives of people at risk. When replacement tolerances are that close, the part should have been checked more frequently…or better yet replaced when it gets within one 10 thousandth of an inch of the wear tolerance. If that part cost $10,000 to replace it would have been cheap compared to losing an aircraft over it.

I would prefer to fly on a Boeing aircraft, but your fleet seems to be full of those MD’s. Why don’t you put more Boeing planes in service to Mexico? If you can help me with finding a flight on a Boeing Aircraft that has been properly maintained I’d appreciate it.

Thanks,

Grant


Mr. Silvey:

Thank you for writing in regards to our MD-80 aircraft.

I understand your concern, and want to assure you that all of our aircraft have completed inspections and are continually checked on a daily basis. The MD-80s are one of the safest commercial airliners in the history of aviation. Its safety record is .41 accidents per million departures (one incident out of over two million flights), which is four times safer than other aircraft, even the 737’s. The FAA made the public announcement a few months ago that our aircraft were safe for operation and that they had no concerns. We understand that these planes will be getting much attention until the cause of the accident is discovered, and we want to make you as comfortable and confident as possible. You are welcome to change your flight schedule, however, aircraft swaps do occur, and there is not a guarantee of which aircraft type you will be flying. Our Reservation agents can assist you in booking a flight that is operated with a 737.

All of our aircraft are Boeing aircraft. This includes that MD-80’s, which are now Boeing aircraft due to the past merger of Boeing and McDonnel Douglas.

Feel free to write us again if you have any further questions or comments.

Jeffry
Alaska Airlines
Supervisor, Consumer Affairs


Thanks for your reply. I was not aware of the MD 80’s safety record. I hear that almost one third of your MD 80 fleet was out of tolerance with respect to the rear stabilizer jack screw as found after the accident of flight 261. Has there been scrutiny of other critical control parts on all your aircraft?

I also heard that the pilots of flight 261 were aware of the control problem shortly after takeoff and could have returned to PVR, or landed at any number of airports along the way but opted to continue without aborting the flight.

What policy does Alaska air have with respect to supporting a pilots decision to abort a flight or to make an unscheduled emergency stop? Has the company reinforced to the pilots that any problem with a control surface is reason to abort the flight plan and to seek the closest airfield?

A recent Alaska flight had a deployment of the emergency oxygen masks, but then proceeded to it’s destination. Isn’t it FAA policy to abort the flight plan after such a deployment and to return to the nearest airport? Have the pilots been reprimanded? Has management taken a firm stand to avoid this type of incident in the future?

I’m curious about any undue pressure that the pilots might have either from management or because of their personal schedules to not abort a flight. Has the management set policy clearly to pilots that safety is the number one concern? Has management issued any statements to pilots supporting their decision to abort a flight under safety concerns? Has management made it clear to pilots that the number one priority is safety and following FAA guidelines for safe operation? Is it company policy to have it’s pilots abort the flight plan at the first indication of a problem with the flight controls?

If so then why did the crew of the plane with the deployed oxygen maskscontinue to it’s destination and not return to the nearest airport? When, exactly did the flight crew on 261 become aware that they had a problem with the rear stabilizer? Is that been made public knowledge?

My concerns with Alaska do not end with the aircraft. I’m concerned that Alaska has lost it’s focus on safety as the number one priority of an airline. I have flown Alaska for years, and have always felt comfortable on Alaska planes. But recent news surrounding flight 261, and the fact that my neighbor and her husband perished on 261, has me concerned about your commitment to safety. I was in Puerto Vallarta when 261 went down. I was flying on Alaska, and it was very disconcerting knowing that I was going to be boarding an Alaska flight on the same route three weeks after the crash.

Thanks,

Grant


Mr. Silvey:

I apologize, but due to NTSB regulations, we are not permitted to comment on flight 261 or the flight that had the oxygen masks deploy until both investigations are complete. I hope you understand.

Our policy towards safety, when flying our aircraft, has always been to insure the safety of the passengers. Certain situations are investigated when the flight crew elects not to operate a flight, but their decision is never questioned. The Captain of the aircraft is the sole authority of that flight, by our policy and by Federal Law. We will not, and are not permitted to, force the crew to operate an aircraft if they feel the flight may pose some safety concerns.

As a commercial pilot myself, I can tell you that there are procedures that are followed during an emergency. These will vary slightly for each aircraft, but are a set or ordered procedures that are done in order to see to it that the aircraft completes its flight without incidence. When an emergency landing is required, we allow the crew to have final say on what airport is chosen due to the fact that they are more likely to have the most information to make this decision.

I have done my best to answer all of your questions that I am permitted and able to. Again, please understand that we are not permitted to discuss certain items regarding our policies and the two occurrences. I hope we will have the pleasure of welcoming you on board a flight with us soon.

Jeffry
Alaska Airlines
Supervisor, Consumer Affairs

Flights to Mexico: Alaska Cops Out

FAA considers tighter scrutiny of airlines

FAA considers tighter scrutiny of airlines

Oversight of Alaska Air caused concern

Saturday, June 17, 2000
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER STAFF and NEWS SERVICES

The Federal Aviation Administration may change the way it monitors safety at the nation’s airlines after audits at Seattle-based Alaska Air Group Inc. showed potential weaknesses in the agency’s oversight.

The agency is preparing to announce next week whether it plans to take the dramatic step of suspending Alaska Airlines’ authority to perform heavy maintenance, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said yesterday.

That move could force the carrier to park planes as they come due for heavy maintenance.

As Alaska awaits the FAA’s judgment, the broader changes could spark increased near-term scrutiny and audits for other U.S. airlines, Garvey said. She didn’t provide specifics of changes her agency is considering.

“I am not opposed to the audit of airlines because I think it is good to monitor ourselves as a precaution,” Garvey said. “With these audits we can make improvements to our training, oversight and maintenance systems. . . . We may, (although) I’m not sure we will.”

The FAA itself is coming under some scrutiny.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer first reported in April that federal agents investigating the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in January and the airline’s maintenance operations are also examining the FAA’s oversight of the carrier.

The FBI’s preliminary inquiry into the FAA was undertaken to determine if a formal criminal investigation is necessary, federal criminal justice sources said.

Agents with the FBI and the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General have been interviewing current and former FAA inspectors and supervisors along with Alaska Airlines personnel in the course of conducting the inquiry into the airline, the sources said.

One high-ranking criminal justice source told the P-I that the question facing prosecutors and agents “is how broad is (the investigation) going to be.”

A criminal investigation of the FAA would focus on whether Alaska encouraged criminally improper maintenance practices that were either sanctioned or ignored by the FAA.

The P-I reported last year that several FAA inspectors in the agency’s Flight Standards Division office in Renton say they had been pressured by superiors to take it easy on Alaska and were punished when they tried to strictly enforce federal regulations.

One Alaska mechanic working at the airline’s Sea-Tac hangar told the P-I that a San Francisco-based FBI agent questioned him a few weeks ago about the FAA and its relationship with Alaska.

“I told them, ‘The most I know of the FAA is they don’t come around very much,'” said the mechanic, who recounted the interview on condition he not be named.

The newspaper last year found many instances where the FAA appeared to have given a higher priority to maintaining a cordial relationship with the airline and operators of unrelated aircraft repair facilities than to imposing tough penalties for regulatory violations.

Some federal inspectors assigned to Alaska Airlines said they were penalized by supervisors when they were strict in enforcing federal regulations. Inspectors have been disciplined and moved to other jobs after airline managers or pilots campaigned against them.

Asked to comment on reports that local FAA inspectors, who spend all their time working with a particular airline, might get too close to the people there, Garvey defended the professionalism of her staff.

But, she added, she has begun rotating inspectors at an airline through various aspects of that carrier’s work and may move inspectors to other carriers for 60- to 90-day visits to bring in “fresh eyes.”

Regularly moving inspectors around the country, however, would be very expensive, she said.

The crash that sparked the Alaska FAA audit was Flight 261, which plunged into the ocean Jan. 31 about 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport after reporting trouble with its stabilizer trim. The reason for the crash is still unknown.

Garvey said part of the investigation included an internal audit of Alaska Airlines’ flight and maintenance systems by the FAA.

“All the facts are not yet in from the crash, so there is not a need to jump to any conclusions,” Garvey said, “But we have serious questions to ask ourselves, and this internal audit may be a basis for a change.”

She said she received a full report on June 9 from Alaska on why the agency shouldn’t suspend the airline’s ability to do heavy maintenance on their aircraft.

Alaska officials have said they expect to be able to resolve the FAA’s questions. They also say the carrier is close to wrapping up its own report. The carrier commissioned a panel of 13 safety professionals to examine its safety operations, and it could release the report in the next two weeks, according to Greg Witter, a spokesman for the company.

“It is our belief that we will be able to address all of the FAA’s concerns before any suspension of our authority to do heavy maintenance occurs,” Alaska Airlines President Bill Ayer said in a statement posted on the company’s Web site.

FAA considers tighter scrutiny of airlines