FAA May Ground America West

America West planes will be grounded unless the airline proves within a week that it has completed maintenance on a quarter of its fleet, federal regulators said Friday.

It was the second time this year in which the nation’s ninth-largest carrier faced disciplinary action over maintenance issues. The Federal Aviation Administration threatened in January to bar the suburban Tempe-based airline from acquiring additional planes until it provided adequate maintenance for the ones it had.

This time, David Gillom of the FAA told the airline by letter that, based on an audit and review, “we have serious concerns about American West’s continuous airworthiness maintenance program.”

Overall, the airline must show it has completed the checks on 35 of its 130 planes.

Airline Says It Can Answer Charges

America West President Douglas Parker and other senior executives were away on a company retreat and couldn’t be reached for comment, but Parker issued a statement saying the airline has completed the required maintenance and can prove it.

However, company spokesman James Sabourin said America West canceled seven flights on Thursday in order to complete maintenance checks on nine aircraft.

The FAA is auditing all nine major carriers in response to a January Alaska Airlines crash that killed 88 people, which lead to a review of Alaska’s maintenance practices. Six of those audits have been completed.

FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitalierie said its audit of America West found no flight safety issues but that the agency nonetheless doesn’t consider proper record-keeping and oversight of major maintenance a minor issue, since those practices represent a way to prevent accidents.

History of Problems

America West has been under FAA scrutiny over maintenance for more than two years. The airline was fined $5 million in July 1998 over maintenance issues that included failing to conduct required inspections. Half of the fine was forgiven, despite local FAA officials’ objections.

This past July, the airline temporarily reduced the number of flights in order to double the number of spare planes available and otherwise to give maintenance increased attention in light of reduced earnings resulting in part from delays and cancellations.

In February, a computer glitch led to cancellation of 160 flights and left about 1,000 passengers stranded. Maintenance problems then led to flight cancellations during the Memorial Day weekend in May.

The airline had laid off 500 maintenance workers in 1995 in favor of having an outside firm handle much of the work. Many of the mechanics were rehired in late 1998.

In the current warning, the FAA expressed concern about deferred maintenance and poor oversight of heavy maintenance overhauls conducted by outside vendors.