By eTN editorial - February 9, 2016
eTN received a copy of a letter with exhibits sent by the US law firm, Clayton Foushee, regarding the ongoing Air21 Case involving six AA mechanics operating out of Chicago.
The letter says: Our law firm represents the six American Airlines (AA) Aviation Maintenance Technicians (AMTs) whose AIR 21 whistleblower, filed on October 6, 2014, initiated the above-referenced investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The complaint recites, inter alia, that AA managers had:
(a) asked AMTs to fraudulently document maintenance they had not performed,
(b) pressured AMTs to refrain from reporting maintenance discrepancies due to airline scheduling demands,
(c) released into revenue service aircraft that were un-airworthy due to the failure to perform required repairs
and/or necessary lightning strike inspections, and
(d) engaged in a wide-ranging program of retaliation against AMTs who resisted demands that they engage in unlawful maintenance practices.
On March 25, 2015, the FAA issued a letter stating that its investigation “substantiated” the Complainants’ report that federal aviation standards had been violated. As a result of inquiries from Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Senator Tammy Baldwin, we later learned that, as a result of our clients’ complaint,
the FAA had opened 19 enforcement investigations, three of which had been closed with administrative actions and 16 of which are pending review by the FAA’s Office of Chief Counsel.
This letter arises from the utter frustration of our efforts, spent over 15 months, to obtain any information regarding these pending enforcement investigations despite our repeated appeals to FAA attorney Cynthia Dominick.
With deep regret, we write to advise you that we are losing the battle for safety at AA. This is, in part, due to the secretive and desultory nature of the FAA’s investigation in this matter.
AA has condemned the safety complaints as “frivolous” and has taught new-hires to refer to the Complainants as the “ISIS 6.” Management officials who advocate for maintenance fraud and for the use of un-airworthy aircraft in revenue service remain in authority. AMTs instructed to implement lightning strike inspection procedures condemned by the FAA as “unacceptable” have never received the requisite re-training.
In a report dated February 16, 2010, the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (OIG)3 criticized the FAA for its lax oversight of AA’s maintenance practices. In the instant context, the FAA’s continuing silence allows AA to intimidate AMTs into accepting the unacceptable.
We write to request that the FAA disclose the status of the 16 pending enforcement investigations and provide full disclosure of the three investigations that it closed with administrative actions. Particularly with respect to the latter group, there can be no justification for the FAA’s current inadequate response to the Complainants’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests; strikingly, the FAA’s FOIA response reflects that the agency abandoned the investigation of unsafe practices without any response from AA or findings of fact by the FAA.45
We also request that the FAA take steps to publicize its findings as each investigation is concluded. Without the FAA’s assistance in this respect, there is little hope of neutralizing the climate of fear that prevails amongst AA’s AMTs; a problem that was amply documented during the past Insufficiency of FAA Oversight
A report dated February 16, 2010, by the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that the FAA’s oversight of AA’s maintenance program “lacks the vigor needed” to identify weaknesses presenting “potential safety implications.” (FAA’s Oversight of American Airlines’ Maintenance Program,
Report No. AV-2010-042, hereinafter “OIG Report”)
The OIG Report concluded that:
From 2004 to 2008, AA’s maintenance-related events (cancellations, in-flight diversions, delays) had increased from 3.9/100 departures to 5.8/100 departures, in part, due to the FAA’s failure to perform routine surveillance of AA’s reliability programs, thereby “increase[ing] the risk of serious incidents;”
From 2004 to 2008, the FAA failed to properly track a 32 percent increase in AA’s maintenance deferrals;
The FAA failed to take appropriate action to prevent AA’s “longstanding” violations of maintenance inspection procedure, which include inspections by unqualified personnel; and
The FAA failed to detect and address AA’s disregard of a Boeing service bulletin relating to problems with aircraft windshield heating systems thatvcould cause the windshield to crack or shatter if left uncorrected.
FAA Confirmation of AA’s Substandard Maintenance Practices
In the aftermath of the OIG Report, an increase in FAA vigilance exposed a range of AA’s substandard maintenance practices.
In July 2012, the FAA filed claims against AA in bankruptcy court seeking record fines for faulty maintenance practices, including:
$39.3 million for failing to fix wiring work on its Boeing 757 aircraft in 2009 and using 113 of the aircraft to perform 1,480 revenue flights before the jets were inspected and repaired up to standard;
$28.8 million for AA’s alleged failure to follow the manufacturer’s procedure for overhauling the main landing gear on approximately 30 Boeing 777 jets; and $27.6 million for work on the engines of Boeing 767 jets for using four aircraft to perform 2,118 revenue flights prior to receiving permission from Boeing to perform an alternative fix to the one provided for in the applicable maintenance manuals.
Due to these and other systemic safety violations, the FAA sought fines in the total amount of $156,506,575.00.
The May 2013 FAA/AA settlement agreement dramatically reduced the proposed fines in exchange, inter alia, for a broad range of “remedial efforts” designed to bring the AA maintenance program up to industry standards. One component of these “remedial efforts” was a series of mandatory “Commitments” to improving maintenance safety, including:
Revising Minimum Equipment List (MEL) practices;
Regulatory-based training for AA Engineers and Engineering Managers;
Additional training for AMTs and Maintenance Control Technicians; and A 25% increase in oversight over outsourced maintenance providers.
Part of the AMT training was a mandatory “In Accordance With” (IAW) program for the purpose of impressing on AA operations that all maintenance must be performed in accordance with the applicable technical documentation, as required by federal law.
The May 2013 FAA/AA settlement agreement resulted in a brief period of enhanced compliance efforts on the part of both the FAA and AA. However, with the advent of the AA-US Airways merger process, the status of AA’s maintenance operations is worse than ever.
The Complainants’ Cooperation with the FAA and AA’s Retaliation
You are undoubtedly familiar with the broad range of safety issues exposed by the Complainants.
AA has made no effort to rebut any of the evidence of specific factual allegations concerning Complainants’ protected activity or AA’s retaliatory response to that activity. Nor, unfortunately, has the FAA ever interviewed management witnesses who not only permitted, but also promoted maintenance fraud in the name of “efficiency.”
When we used the term “unrebutted” evidence, we use the term advisedly. The unrebutted evidence substantiates that:
Director Rodriguez exhorted Complainants to resort to maintenance fraud in order to get aircraft back into revenue service more quickly.
Director Rodriguez maintained that she could put every AA aircraft out of service based on maintenance issues if she wanted to, thereby effectively conceding
that AA aircraft frequently fly in an un-airworthy condition; Director Rodriguez instructed Complainants that they had to strike a “balance” between FAR compliance and “performance” because “I need my airplanes to go out in the morning.”;
Director Rodriguez made a thinly veiled threat of base closure by stating to Complainants and their union representative that, if they failed to reduce their reports of maintenance discrepancies, there could a reduction in maintenance staff
Supervisor Vanderhill accused AMTs of submitting “bullshit write-ups.”
When challenged by Complainant Carpenter to identify any write-ups that did not pertain to a genuine maintenance discrepancy, Vanderhill echoed Director Rodriguez’s acquiescence to substandard maintenance by stating: “It’s just bullshit. We can write up every airplane every night and nothing will fly.” Vanderhill subsequently made a thinly veiled threat of base closure.
Complainant Carpenter drew an angry response from Supervisor Jose Cabrera when he resisted pressure to accept an illegal repair on an APU fuel drain shroud;
Complainant Carpenter resisted pressure from Supervisor Cabrera to implement an illegal maintenance procedure by disregarding substantial erosion damage that penetrated three layers of paint and impacted the underlying fiberglass;
Complainant Carpenter was subjected to abusive treatment when brought to the attention of AA that, in view of extensive damage to an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), aircraft 3DD could not be released with the issuance of Field Engineering Authorization (FEA);
Complainant Carpenter was subject to abusive treatment and threats for insisting that an aircraft with radome damage in excess of the Structural Repair Manual (SRM) limitations could not be legally released by merely taping over the damage;
Complainant Larson was subject to abusive treatment and told to “go home right now” when he insisted that repairs to a damaged wing to body fairing skin panel could not be legally accomplished in the manner demanded by Shift Manager Irwin;
Complainant Mohapp was told that, if he did not decrease his reports of maintenance discrepancies, “Corporate” would take action against the Chicago maintenance station;
Complainant Tosado was subject to a higher level of scrutiny and discriminatory treatment, in part, due to his reports of maintenance discrepancies on an MD-80 aircraft;
Complainant Hastings was subject to discriminatory treatment due to his reports of maintenance discrepancies on aircraft that were subsequently removed from service;
Complainant Kosecki was subject to discriminatory treatment and veiled threats for submitting reports of contamination of aircrafts’ electrical wiring interconnection system (EWIS);
Complainant Kosecki was subject to abusive and discriminatory treatment, and threats of base closure, due to his reports of maintenance discrepancies and insistence of performing maintenance in accordance with the FARs;
Complainant Carpenter and fellow AMT Steven Losos were threatened with termination when they attempted to assist fellow AMTs in cooperating with an FAA investigation into AA’s unlawful maintenance practices.
Parallel efforts to investigate unsafe practices at DFW resulted in AA management personnel threatening union representatives with arrest.
FAA inspectors interviewed every one of the Complainants and dozens of other AMTs at ORD. The inspectors were aghast. They commented to one another, in front of union representatives, that they had never seen a maintenance culture as bad as this. They conceded that as many as twenty aircraft had flown numerous revenue segments in an un-airworthy condition and that AA was, therefore, subject to enormous fines. They expressed astonishment that AA appeared to have abandoned even a semblance of a lightning strike inspection program.
Nevertheless, over 15 months have passed since the filing of the original complaint and Regional Director Evita Rodriguez boasts that the FAA has never interrogated her. Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom and other management representatives have issued press statements declaring that no one at AA has received any notice of a “bona fide” safety issue.
To put it bluntly, we know that AA is lying. While the FAA has been inexplicably circumspect in its disclosures concerning its investigations, the evidence of current and serious deficiencies with AA’s maintenance program has been documented, including:
The FAA’s letter of March 25, 2015, in response to this AIR 21 filing, substantiating that a violation of air safety standards has occurred;
The FAA’s letter dated January 29, 2015, finding that a violation of federal aviation standards may have occurred with respect to AA’s DFW B-Check Operation;
AA Maintenance and Engineering Compliance Manager Jim Norman’s confirmation that the post-AIR 21 FAA investigation triggered a formal Letter of Investigation (LOI) concerning a rejected takeoff for aircraft 7BA due to the failure to properly address a discrepancy related to the presence of entangled rope in the aircraft’s steering mechanism;
A total revamping of AA’s lightning strike inspection program, which had been compromised by management directives in order to reduce the number of inspections, in the aftermath of the FAA’s investigation and Local 591’s federal lawsuit. Significantly, FAA Principal Avionics Inspector Richard I. Bell declared AA’s lightning strike inspection policy to be “unacceptable.”
Nevertheless, the agency’s apparent abandonment of its investigation has made the FAA the means by which the carrier further undermines the ability of AMTs to perform lawful maintenance. AA brands the safety-conscious Complainants as terrorists and assigns them to non-inspection work. Due to the FAA’s inaction, AA wields a free hand in bullying the remaining AMTs into unsafe practices in the name of meeting the schedule.
I want to say a final word about the men who you have abandoned. They are not complainers. They are not disgruntled employees. They are the salt of the earth. Stolid men who take a quiet pride in their craft.
Nevertheless, I witnessed one staring at his shoes and almost whispering to a government investigator that if his wife knew he was assisting a safety investigation, “she would kill me. She says: ‘just do what they say.’ But I can’t, I can’t. If I’m wrong, I need the FAA to tell me I’m wrong and then I will do what they say. But I can’t push an un-airworthy plane back into service just because AA doesn’t want to take a delay.”
The FAA’s inaction has communicated to AA’s ORD technicians that it is acceptable practice to deviate from maintenance manual procedures based on a supervisor’s say-so. Such a practice is, of course, unsafe and unlawful; however, it is where the agency’s dereliction of duty has left us.
The FAA needs to make a decision and publish it. Its continuing failure to do so has destroyed its credibility among the men and women who repair our aircraft and has converted the agency into part of the problem.
cc: Representative Jan Schakowsky
Senator Tammy Baldwin
Alex Burkett, Esq. – Counsel, House Subcommittee on Aviation
Matt Stoller – Senior Advisor, United States Senate Budget Committee
Lou E. Dixon, Assistant Inspector General, Office of Inspector General
Scott Harding, Chief, Complaint Center Operations, Office of Inspector general