• U.S.

Just Plane Dangerous?

6 minute read
Sally B. Donnelly/Washington

In his office a mile from a runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, Philip Bowles grips an official-looking piece of paper. A pilot since he was 18 and now CEO of Airfreight Express (AFX), he is holding a copy of the most important document in aviation safety: a work card. These government-approved forms are used to document repair or maintenance of all aircraft. “Trust still exists in the aviation industry,” explains Bowles, “because when these forms are completed, an airline can be 100% certain that the aircraft is airworthy.”

Or can it? Bowles is charging in a lawsuit filed last Thursday that a Boeing 747 cargo plane owned by AFX was temporarily turned into a ticking time bomb by faulty and deceptive maintenance practices. The target of the suit is Evergreen Air Center, a midsize maintenance and storage facility in Marana, Ariz.

The company is a subsidiary of the privately held Evergreen International Aviation, based in McMinnville, Ore., whose interests include airplane sales, ground logistics and freight forwarding. The Air Center has done work for America West and cargo carriers such as Atlas Air, which has the largest fleet of 747 freighters in the world. Evergreen also maintains NASA’s two 747s, used to haul the space shuttles. And it is one of only a handful of prep centers for Boeing. That means new planes from Boeing’s factories are sometimes stored temporarily at Evergreen, then later prepared by Evergreen workers for final delivery to an airline.

The suit alleges that Evergreen, whose motto is “Quality Without Compromise,” made multiple repair errors, failed to perform required work, charged for work never done and extorted money from Bowles’ air-freight company, which is based in London and will start service to Chicago later this month. (AFX has since hired another firm to make the plane airworthy.) “Evergreen actions with regard to our airplane were a clear threat to air safety. If Evergreen is doing the same to other airlines, they may well hurt someone,” Bowles told TIME. “They have to be stopped.” Last week the FAA confirmed that it was conducting its own special inspection of Evergreen. Contacted by TIME, the Air Center’s president, Trevor Van Horn, said, “I am not going to comment.” Other calls to officials at the company were not returned or yielded no comment.

Bowles’ public whistle blowing, particularly over safety issues, is uncommon in the industry. Airlines and maintenance companies are so interdependent that disputes are often disposed of quietly, and aviation remains remarkably safe. Major airlines such as United and American do most of their own work, but 50% of all maintenance done on U.S. airliners is outsourced, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The allegations against Evergreen, which has never been implicated in a major crash, may point to a wider problem in aviation maintenance. Just last week the NTSB announced that it would hold a public hearing on the crash last year of an Emery Worldwide Airlines DC-8 cargo plane near Rancho Cordova, Calif., and that the work by a third party has been a focus of that investigation. The NTSB’s John Goglia, a trained mechanic and a 35-year aviation-industry veteran, is concerned about some statistics that show an increase in serious accidents with maintenance as the primary cause. “Some of the same questions that were raised by the ValuJet crash in 1996 are still with us,” says Goglia. The ValuJet crash, which killed 110, was attributed to a contractor’s error. “Is third-party maintenance of sufficient quality? Is it regulated enough? Are too many corners being cut to save money? I don’t know, but we need to find out.”

Aircraft maintenance and repair is supposed to be an exact science. Detailed procedures are required for each task, and unique tools are often needed. The FAA requires that all work be done according to precise specifications from the aircraft’s manufacturer and that it be approved by the agency. Compliance is so rigid that it is measured in millimeters. Work cards document every step in the process and are reviewed first by the airline and then by FAA inspectors. Maintenance errors are suspected in the most recent major U.S. crash, Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which plummeted into the Pacific Ocean in January 2000, killing all 88 aboard.

Bowles and other AFX employees say Evergreen’s mishandling jeopardized crucial flight-safety items such as smoke detectors and flight-control systems. Bowles says Evergreen failed to find one of the most worrisome defects: corrosion in a vital structure. AFX discovered that bolts in the rear pressure bulkhead–the essential internal wall that supports the plane’s airframe–were badly corroded.

AFX also claims Evergreen botched repairs of the aluminum skin of the plane so badly that it distorted the information fed through the system that helps maintain the 747’s separation from other planes. Then, AFX contends, Evergreen falsified test results to cover up its misdeeds. Mechanics at Evergreen also allegedly left an unusual–and potentially dangerous–array of items (including a screwdriver, an Evergreen security ID and even an Evergreen lapel pin) loose inside the fuselage. “It is a shocking litany of blunders,” says Bowles, who is asking for $10 million in damages.

Bowles chose to have repairs done at Evergreen in part because the 747 he bought was already stored there and needed work before it could fly. A conflict quickly emerged. Leigh Abbott, AFX’s representative at Evergreen, says he was not allowed to veto work, change a work order or challenge the time and parts charges–standard industry practices. “It was unlike any facility I’ve ever been in,” says Abbott, a former line mechanic. “I could see that work had not been done when Evergreen claimed it was. When I challenged them, it was as if I was wrong on every point.”

To his amazement, Abbott says, he discovered that Evergreen had drilled a hole in the wrong place in a flap track on the left wing, creating a serious flight-safety risk by weakening the entire track. (The flap track supports one of the four flaps on the plane, a critical flight surface.) In another case, also described in the lawsuit, Evergreen was instructed to inspect and lubricate the flap carriage on the wing. (Lubrication is an essential flight-safety issue: failure to lubricate an internal part properly is thought to be the leading cause of the Alaska Airlines crash.) On Dec. 15, Evergreen told AFX that both tasks had been done. Then in January, Abbott discovered not only that the flap carriage had not been lubricated but also that part of the carriage had in fact broken off. If AFX had flown the plane in such a condition, it could have damaged the airframe or at worst caused the pilot to lose control of the plane, AFX contends.

Whatever the outcome of the suit, the number of jets in service each year just keeps increasing. The margin of safety needs to be maintained or the risk of fatal errors may go up. Filling out the cards correctly will be more important than ever.

TIME.com Go to time.com/donnelly to read Sally Donnelly’s weekly column on the airline industry

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