Almost 100 jets were grounded to accomplish required safety checks, raising serious questions about federal oversight of the airline that was at least eight months late doing the work.
On 15 February United Airlines announced that it was grounding 96 of its B757s to check and validate software and hardware changes for the airplane’s air data computer systems.
“We apologize for any inconvenience and ask customers to check their flights status … before going to the airport,” said United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy. The work reportedly will take 12-24 hours to complete, so the airplanes should be returned to service as of this writing.
According to media reports, during a routine maintenance check, United discovered that it had not followed all the steps required in an airworthiness directive (AD) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2004.
End of story? Not a big problem? Hardly. Rather than soothing reports of how well United did getting these grounded aircraft back on the flight schedule, the story should have been of the utter failures demonstrated here and the lack of assurances that this latest problem isn’t part of a systemic FAA absence of oversight.
The AD in question (AD 2004-10-15) was published in the Federal Register in May 2004. Extracts below set forth the work to be done and the reasons therefore:
“This [AD] requires a modification of the air data computer (ADC) system, which involves installing certain new circuit breakers, relays, and related components, and making various wiring changes in and between the flight deck and main equipment center …
“This action is necessary to ensure that the flightcrew is able to silence an erroneous overspeed or stall aural warning. A persistent erroneous warning could confuse and distract the flightcrew and lead to an increase in the flightcrew’s workload. Such a situation could lead the flightcrew to act on hazardously misleading information, which could result in loss of control of the airplane …
“For Model 757-200 … airplanes: Install a circuit breaker and replace an existing lightplate assembly with a new, improved lightplate assembly in the flight compartment; install two relays and remove a certain relay in the main equipment center; make various wiring changes in the flight compartment and main equipment center; and perform tests of the flight data acquisition unit, flight data recorder system, and stall and overspeed warnings.”
The work was required within 6 years of the AD’s effective date of June 22, 2004. United had performed the hardware changes within that period, but failed to perform the functionality tests, hence the grounding for the required tests.
The period of non-compliance with the AD appears to be from June 2010 to February 2011.
United’s public announcement of the belatedly required checks may be an attempt to forestall a civil penalty of millions of dollars, since the out-of-compliance fine is based on the number of airplanes times the number of flights made in a noncompliant condition. Recall that in October 2009 the FAA proposed a $3.8 million fine against United for flying a B737 over 200 flights with shop towels, rather than protective caps, covering openings in the oil sump on the right-side engine. Recall, also, the $24.2 million fine proposed against American Airlines in August 2010 for failing to follow an AD affecting 286 MD-80 twinjets. (See Aviation Safety Journal, October 2009, “Distracting Attention From Systemic Safety Shortcomings” and September 2010, “Penalty Raises Question: Where Was the FAA When Airline Was Out of Compliance?”)
One has to ask why the full AD compliance was not tracked in a timely manner by United. After all, software for alerting when data (invoices) becomes “past due” is available at all office supply stores.
And where was the FAA principal maintenance inspector (PMI) in this fiasco? If he didn’t notice the noncompliant aircraft, then where were the assigned certificate management folks assigned by the FAA to oversee United’s operating certificate (which includes AD compliance in support of that operating certificate). Lastly, if oversight at these field levels was lacking, where was the FAA’s Washington DC headquarters in all of this?
Pertinent questions go well beyond feel-good statements.
Every month that this AD went beyond compliance is not just an indictment of United’s programs for continuing safety analysis accepted by the FAA, but also of the FAA’s entire oversight program – from the PMI to Washington headquarters.