October 1, 2008— -- An investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has found that American Eagle, the commuter airline, has repeatedly flown passsenger planes that have been overloaded or improperly balanced, posing a potential safety hazard, people in the aviation industry have told ABC News.
The FAA has uncovered at least 19 cases over the past five months where American Eagle planes flew in violation of federal "weight and balance" guidelines, the aviation industry sources said.
If a plane is overloaded or out of balance it can have major safety implications, especially if it is in combination with another flight problem such as an engine failure. Commuter planes, in particular, have to be carefully loaded to make sure the plane's center of gravity falls within accepted limits.
Weight and balance problems contributed to the 2003 crash of a US Airways Express commuter plane in Charlotte, NC that killed 21, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The board's investigation into the crash found "substantially inaccurate weight and balance calculations for company airplanes."
"When you talk about the performance for weight and balance it is critical, it will get you killed, which is why it's so strictly controlled" said Jack Eppard of the Air Line Pilots Association.
The investigation of American Eagle was triggered after the airline self-reported two incidents to the FAA where planes took off despite being outside accepted weight and balance limits, according to sources. FAA officials launched a probe that uncovered 19 additional occasions where American Eagle planes were found to have violated weight and balance standards. Sources say the FAA's legal department is currently deciding whether to take enforcement action against American Eagle, which could include substantial fines and penalties.
An FAA spokesperson would not talk about the investigation or any potential action against American Eagle.
"We don't comment on ongoing investigations which may or may not result in enforcement actions. When enforcement actions are taken, that information is available to the public," said FAA spokesperson Roland Herwig.
American Eagle acknowledged to ABC News that there were "several cases" where planes flew in violations of weight and balance guidelines. Spokesperson Andrea Huguely blamed the problem on a discrepancy between the manual baggage load list and a computer program used to calculate weight and balance. Huguely said American Eagle has been in discussions with the FAA over ways to improve its loading system. She said she was unaware of the FAA's investigation or of any possible enforcement action. When asked if American Eagle's weight and balance problems could pose a safety threat, Huguely responded, "I don't know."
Huguely added, however, that American Eagle planes have redundant safety systems, "and we feel as though we always fly safe planes."
Eric Longabardi is a freelance journalist who is a frequent contributor to the Blotter, ABCNews.com's investigative page.