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NWA "replacement" maintenance falling behind?

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NWA "replacement" maintenance falling behind?

Old 10-02-2005, 08:10 AM
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Default NWA "replacement" maintenance falling behind?


FAA inspectors raise questions at Northwest
Tony Kennedy and Paul McEnroe, Star Tribune
October 2, 2005

On the first day Northwest Airlines began using replacement workers for its striking mechanics, the carrier's chief executive stressed that it was business as usual at the nation's fourth largest airline.

"Our operation is running smoothly," CEO Doug Steenland said.

Now, the Star Tribune has obtained reports filed by federal aviation inspectors during the first month of the strike that belie the orderly sense of calm that Steenland and other Northwest executives have sought to convey. The documents, reviewed by two independent aviation experts, describe training deficiencies among the replacement workers, thin staffing, maintenance blunders and mistakes in recording aircraft repairs -- a crucial safety discipline in the airline industry.

In one instance, mechanics failed to spot a dead bird in the engine of a plane about to leave Memphis, but a co-pilot saw it before takeoff. In another, inspectors watched replacement workers toil through the night to replace a brake -- a job that usually takes experienced mechanics less than three hours, according to experts consulted by the Star Tribune.

A replacement mechanic rides a bicycle along a hangar.David JolesStar TribuneIn the weeks leading up to the strike, Northwest took pains to assure travelers that its replacement workers were fully licensed and trained, and that safety would not be compromised.

Northwest declined to discuss the substance of more than 100 reports compiled by Federal Aviation Administration inspectors. In a statement last week, the airline said it "remains confident in the quality of its maintenance program."

Northwest acknowledged that it has conducted "refresher training" for replacement workers since the strike began to ensure proper documentation of aircraft maintenance. The training, now complete, was initiated after the FAA's top inspection manager at Northwest discussed post-strike problems in record-keeping with the airline, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory.

Cory said the agency does not publicly express opinions on how well individual airlines are complying with federal regulations. She also noted that many of the FAA inspection reports from the first four weeks of the strike found no faults, while others that did were promptly corrected by Northwest. A few are still under investigation.

She also said the FAA is "seeing great improvement in the logbook area" since replacement workers have gone for retraining. Regarding staffing levels, Cory said Northwest was operating in compliance with federal regulations.

Extra scrutiny

Northwest's maintenance procedures have been under extra scrutiny since mechanics walked off the job Aug. 19 and the airline turned to 1,200 replacement workers and a few hundred managers to maintain and repair its planes. The heightened surveillance is customary during labor disputes.

In this case, the FAA increased the number of personnel assigned to the airline from 53 to upward of 80. With more inspectors, the FAA is able to increase its normal spot checks and write more reports, but it still cannot monitor all activities at a carrier that operates 1,400 daily flights.

With Northwest under extraordinary federal scrutiny, and with hundreds of inspection reports since the strike still under wraps, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions about safety at the airline from the sample of FAA reports reviewed by the Star Tribune. None of the reports reviewed revealed any maintenance problems while planes were in flight.

What the reports do provide is the first independent glimpse into the airline's maintenance operations as replacement mechanics and their managers worked to keep Northwest flying.

One report described an FAA inspector at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York who observed a team of Northwest managers and replacement mechanics incorrectly inspect and incorrectly repair an engine blade tip, a critical rotating component.

The inspector said in his Aug. 27 report that Northwest decided to fly the plane even after he informed the maintenance team of possible violations of federal safety regulations "because the blade was scheduled for removal within the next 50 flight hours."

An FAA spokeswoman said the agency continues to investigate that incident.

Four days later at a Northwest hub in Memphis, an FAA inspector reported that a replacement mechanic failed to see a dead bird in the right engine of a DC-9 jetliner during the mechanic's inspection of the aircraft. It was spotted at the last minute in a pre-flight inspection by the co-pilot, the report said. The discovery was important because, on impact, a bird could damage engine components.

In Philadelphia, a day after the strike began, an FAA inspector watched four replacement mechanics "fresh out of A&P (airframe and powerplant) school" spend all night trying to change a plane's brake under the guidance of one experienced mechanic.

At the Jackson, Miss., airport on Aug. 24, a Northwest pilot told an FAA inspector about two "frustrating" experiences with newly trained tug drivers, including one that nearly resulted in an on-the-ground collision near the gate area.

"The captain was very alarmed about the training and abilities of the tug operator," the report added.

Two weeks ago in Indianapolis, an FAA inspector reported that a Northwest replacement worker who had just completed training in Tucson, Ariz., did not know how to look up a part on the airline's computer system.

The Star Tribune obtained the FAA documents, along with dozens of Northwest's internal aircraft maintenance logs, and had them reviewed last week by former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member John Goglia and by John Krawczyk, a former mechanic and maintenance inspector for United Airlines. Krawczyk has no ties to Northwest or its mechanics' union.

Krawczyk, who has 20 years of airline maintenance experience, said the mistakes documented in the reports expose the public to danger.

He questioned, for example, an Aug. 30 entry in the carrier's maintenance logs that indicated a replacement worker added seven quarts of oil to an engine without checking for leaks or seeking another explanation for abnormal oil loss. "Seven quarts should have raised a red-flag -- it's beyond limits, you have to find the source of the leak," Krawczyk said.

Northwest spokesman Bill Mellon said the mechanic followed NWA procedures. The airline was aware of the problem before it was noted in the Aug. 30 maintenance log and had a plan to fix it, Mellon said. A bad oil seal in the engine was replaced the next day, he said.

But Goglia said no plan for deferred maintenance on the engine should have excused the mechanic on Aug. 30 from checking for an oil leak. He said the engine could have developed a second problem.

Goglia, a licensed airframe and powerplant mechanic who is now a professor of aviation science at St. Louis University, said he saw evidence of training deficiencies and documentation errors throughout the FAA inspection reports and maintenance logs he reviewed.

In Los Angeles on Sept. 1, an FAA inspector discovered that there was no documentation on board a Northwest 747 to indicate that the plane's rain-repellent system was deactivated. Mechanics should have noted the deficiency on a placard but did not.

"Nor was there any entry in the aircraft maintenance log book reflecting the current status of the system," the report said.

Goglia said pilots would not have discovered the absence of a rain-repellent system until they needed to use it, a scenario especially unwanted during a landing in inclement weather. The repellent system sprays fluid onto a plane's windshield. Without it, wipers are required.

"If the paperwork is not right, you will start to skew the system that is meant to keep you out of trouble -- real trouble," Goglia said.

Inspector reassigned

The FAA inspector reports obtained by the Star Tribune were not the first to raise questions about safety issues at Northwest in the days after the strike began.

Three days after it started, an FAA inspector in the Twin Cities wrote a confidential memo about safety problems he observed.

"FAA safety inspectors have and continue to observe employee and vendor employee errors in the accomplishment of aircraft maintenance, inspection and servicing tasks," the inspector, Mark Lund of Cannon Falls, Minn., wrote.

Lund, who did not return calls from the Star Tribune, shared his safety memo with Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., who in turn initiated a now on-going investigation into Northwest's operations by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), which oversees the FAA.

Northwest complained to the FAA about Lund, alleging unprofessional behavior, and he was reassigned to desk duty.

Lund's memo highlighted 10 concerns. They range from a Northwest maintenance manager not complying with an engine run checklist to five replacement workers who were not aware how pressure-release indicators operated on a wing fuel tank.

In another case, a Northwest manager in Minneapolis told the FAA there was no reason why a DC-10 arriving from Amsterdam could not continue on to Honolulu even though a broken lavatory duct had allowed human waste to spill into the plane's electrical equipment bay. "FAA stepped in and ensured aircraft was clean and checked out before a next flight," Lund wrote.

Linda Goodrich, an official with the union that represents FAA inspectors, said Thursday that Lund has been cleared by the FAA to return to inspections at Northwest but only after he reads a passage from a federal code of conduct and ethics.

Last edited by CRM1337; 10-02-2005 at 08:13 AM.
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Old 10-02-2005, 08:12 AM
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Jim Gelbmann, state director of Dayton's Minnesota office, said Thursday that a second FAA inspector has come forward to voice concerns about Northwest's operations to him. He said that inspector also agreed to provide information to the OIG.

OIG spokesman David Barnes said Friday that auditors and investigators continue to probe the actions of FAA and Northwest. A review of the FAA investigator reports is part of that investigation, Barnes said.

Leaders for the union that represents the airline's 4,200 striking mechanics say the FAA reports bear out what they've argued all along, that Northwest's reliance on replacement mechanics has put the public at risk.

"These records provide examples that are even worse than we imagined," said John Glynn, maintenance standards coordinator for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA).
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