American Airlines hit with largest fine ever over maintenance

FORT WORTH — Federal regulators hit American Airlines with the industry's largest fine ever, saying the Fort Worth-based carrier failed to properly inspect and repair wires in the wheel wells of its MD-80 fleet in 2008.

The FAA's proposed $24.2 million civil penalty is related to the April 2008 grounding of about 300 American planes, a move that led to 3,000 canceled flights in one week.

"We expect operators to perform inspections and conduct regular and required maintenance in order to prevent safety issues," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "There can be no compromises when it comes to safety."

American said it believes that the proposed fine is "unwarranted" and plans to challenge it.

"American Airlines has always maintained its aircraft to the highest standards, and we continue to do so," said American spokeswoman Andrea Huguely. "We assure our customers there was never a safety of flight issue surrounding these circumstances more than two years ago."

As part of its investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration said it determined that 286 of American's MD-80s flew a combined 14,278 passenger flights while not in compliance with an airworthiness directive that required operators to inspect and repair wire bundles in wheel wells. FAA officials said abrasion on the wires could have led to fires and fuel-tank explosions.

American said it was simply an issue of improperly spaced clips that held wires together in bundles.

The original 2006 safety directive required airlines to bundle and tie the wires in wheel wells, giving carriers up to 18 months to comply. At the time, aviation safety experts suggested that allowing the inspections over such a long period showed that the wiring wasn't considered an immediate threat.

On March 26 and 27, 2008, American canceled nearly 500 flights when it grounded its MD-80s for new inspections of the wiring.

The problem emerged amid an FAA audit of inspection records at airlines nationwide. The FAA told American that ties that fasten wire bundles to the side of the wheel well weren't properly spaced 1 inch apart.

Then in early April, after a spot check of planes, the FAA found additional problems with the wire bundles, and on April 8, American grounded all 300 of its MD-80s for another round of inspections and repairs when necessary.

The MD-80 maintenance issue also prompted the Transportation Department's Office of the Inspector General to investigate American's handling of maintenance issues and FAA oversight of the carrier. The report, released in February, said that American was not following procedures for required maintenance inspections and that the FAA was not addressing "American's long-standing failure to comply."

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