FAA Seeks $7.1 M in Penalties Against American Airlines

The Federal Aviation Administration proposed $7.1 million in fines against American Airlines for a string of violations that include improperly deferring maintenance on safety-related equipment and violations of employee drug-testing rules.

The FAA asserts that in December 2007, American used the wrong provisions of its Minimum Equipment List (MEL) to return two MD-83 aircraft to service after pilots had reported problems, and flew the planes 58 times in violation of FAA regulations. The MEL contains components and systems without which the aircraft may operate safely under specific limitations, as proven by the operator or manufacturer.

On Dec. 11 and 12, American operated the first MD-83 on eight flights in airspace it should have been restricted from after maintenance on part of the autopilot system was improperly deferred. An FAA inspector discovered the improper deferral and informed the airline, however American flew the plane on 10 more revenue flights until the problem was fixed on Dec. 17.

In another incident, the autopilot disconnected during a landing by the same aircraft on Dec. 21. American technicians did not check for the actual problem, and instead deferred maintenance using an inappropriate MEL item. The plane flew another 36 passenger-carrying flights during Dec.21-31. Airline maintenance later discovered the fault was in a radio altimeter – not the autopilot.

For the violations involving this MD-83, the FAA is proposing a $4.1 million civil penalty.

A different MD-83 experienced an autopilot disconnect on Dec. 27. Although American mechanics correctly diagnosed the problem, they again deferred maintenance under the wrong item of the MEL. As a result, the aircraft operated on four revenue flights without a fully functioning autopilot. The FAA is proposing a $325,000 civil penalty in this instance.

The FAA believes the large total amount of the fine for these violations is appropriate because American Airlines was aware that appropriate repairs were needed, and instead deferred maintenance. In intentionally continuing to fly the aircraft, the carrier did not follow important safety regulations intended to protect passengers and crew.

Also, in May of this year the FAA proposed civil penalties in the amount of $2.7 million in civil penalties against American for alleged past deficiencies in its drug and alcohol testing programs and for allegedly operating aircraft in past years without timely inspections of emergency escape path lighting systems. The amount included $1.7 million civil penalty for the testing program violations and $1 million for the lighting inspection violations.

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