Federal officials have hit American Airlines with a record penalty of $24.2 million over maintenance lapses that caused thousands of canceled flights in 2008.
The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that American failed to take steps to prevent chafing of electrical wires in the wheel wells of its McDonnell Douglas MD-80-series jets.
The FAA says the wiring could have led to fires and fuel-tank explosions. American officials did not comment immediately, but they’ve said before that they considered it a minor matter of leaving too much space between clips that held bundles of wire together. They have insisted that passenger safety was never threatened.
American, a unit of AMR Corp., can challenge the proposed penalty and negotiate to reduce it.
The FAA said inspectors spotted problems with the wiring on two MD-80 planes in March 2008 and that American failed to correctly fix the problem. Inspectors found improper work on most of the planes it checked during follow-up visits to American maintenance facilities.
The airline ended up grounding its entire fleet of about 300 MD-80s and canceling thousands of flights in April 2008 while mechanics worked on the planes.
The FAA said Thursday that American operated 14,278 passenger flights on 286 planes that didn’t meet the wiring standards.
“We expect operators to perform inspections and conduct regular and required maintenance in order to prevent safety issues,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose department includes the FAA. “There can be no compromises when it comes to safety.”
American has since been retiring some of the gas-guzzling MD-80 planes and replacing them with more fuel-efficient ones. The FAA said safety officials had made progress working with American to improve the airline’s “maintenance culture.”
If upheld, the penalty against American would top the previous record of $9.5 million that the FAA levied against Eastern Airlines in 1987 for delaying required maintenance work. Eastern went out of business after paying only about $1 million.
As the FAA was focusing on American in 2008, it also proposed a $10.2 million penalty against Southwest Airlines for operating about 1,400 flights before inspecting the planes for cracks. Southwest negotiated that down to $7.5 million.
The actions against American and Southwest came after whistle-blowers in the FAA and members of Congress criticized the agency for being too cozy with the airlines.