October 22, 2008 -- American Eagle is in danger of being kicked out of a key safety program by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because the commuter airline repeatedly flew overloaded, potentially unsafe planes, aviation sources tell ABCNews.com.
ABCNews.com has learned that in a separate case an American Eagle plane was improperly loaded with a 300 lb. metal maintenance staircase and four 50 lb. sandbags that were put into a plane's cargo hold as ballast.
The additional items were not entered onto the plane's load sheet, which is used to calculate if a plane falls within federal weight and balance limits, according to documents obtained by ABCNews.com. One document indicates that the crew also left the stairs unsecured inside the hold, which aviation experts say could have endangered the plane.
"This is a serious violation of FAA regulations," said Bill McNeese, a former FAA inspector and experienced pilot. "An unsecured metal object with sharp corners bouncing around in a cargo hold could compromise the flight characteristics of the plane."
The pilot of the American Eagle flight, who asked not to be named, said he "had no idea" that the staircase was inside the cargo hold, and was "very upset" at the breakdown of the loading process.
"This was a serious safety concern for me," said the pilot who took it upon himself to recalculate the weight and balance of the plane upon landing. The plane was found to be within the proper limits, despite the extra weight. The pilot later notified the FAA of the incident.
In a similar incident, sources tell ABC News that a loading crew placed an unsecured three to four hundred pound metal pipe into a cargo hold as ballast. Sources say a forklift was required to remove the pipe from the airplane once it landed.
American Eagle did not comment specifically on the two incidents when contacted for a response by ABC News.
Flying outside the specified weight and balance guidelines can have disastrous consequences, experts say. The 2003 crash of a US Airways Express commuter plane in Charlotte, NC that killed 21 people was partly blamed by the National Transportation Safety Board on "inaccurate weight and balance calculations."
American Eagle's repeated weight and balance violations have put its participation in the FAA's Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) at risk, aviation sources say. Under ASAP, airlines can voluntarily report violations to the FAA without penalty, as long as they act quickly to fix the problem. If removed from the ASAP program, American Eagle would be subject to much stricter FAA safety enforcement procedures.
At a recent meeting, the FAA official in charge of ASAP, Tom Longridge, agreed with the recommendation of two FAA investigators that American Eagle's participation in the program be discontinued, according to sources within the aviation community. When contacted by ABCNews.com, Longridge refused to comment on American Eagle's status.
So far, the FAA has not announced any action regarding American Eagle's participation in ASAP.
American Eagle said it was unaware of any change in its status, saying in a statement: "The FAA has told American Eagle that its ASAP programs are not in jeopardy." The airline said it is currently working with the FAA on new procedures to make its weight and balance systems "more accurate, consistent and user-friendly."
Eric Longabardi is a freelance journalist who is a frequent contributor to the Blotter, ABCNews.com's investigative page.