Safety board - Federal oversight contributed to plane crash

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Lax government oversight and shoddy maintenance practices by Alaska Airlines led to the crash of an airliner off the California coast that killed all 88 people aboard, federal investigators ruled Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said insufficient lubrication caused excessive wear and the eventual failure of the jet's jackscrew, a tail component that helps move the plane's stabilizer and sets the angle of flight.

The safety board rejected the airline's argument that the kind of grease recommended by Boeing Co. was at fault.

While the board said Alaska Airlines was primarily to blame for the Jan. 31, 2000, crash, it also said the Federal Aviation Administration bore some responsibility.

The FAA, which oversees airlines' maintenance programs, allowed Alaska Airlines to extend the intervals for greasing tail components and inspecting them for wear. The increased time between checks led to the lubrication problem, investigators said.

"The FAA is the government and I think the public trusts the government to ensure the safety of flight," NTSB Chairwoman Carol Carmody said. "I feel in this instance FAA failed miserably."

Relatives of victims who attended the NTSB meeting cheered when the board voted on the probable cause of the accident. Paige Stockley, 40, who lost her parents in the crash, carried a sign reading: "Corporate Greed Killed 88 People."

"It's like a closure. You don't have to wonder anymore," said Bernice Aragon, whose brother, sister-in-law and niece died in the crash.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the NTSB correctly focused on lack of lubrication as the primary cause. He defended the FAA's oversight, saying intervals between maintenance checks were well within industry norms.

Since the crash, the FAA has shortened the time allowed between lubrications and inspections for all airlines.

Alaska Airlines issued a statement saying it agrees with many of the NTSB findings and "respectfully questions others," though it did not specify them.

It also expressed deep regret for the crash and "profound sorrow" for the pain and loss suffered by relatives of victims. It noted steps it has taken to improve maintenance and safety, including hiring 300 additional employees, conducting more than 1,000 internal audits and commissioning a safety review by an outside entity.

"Since the accident, Alaska has enlisted the support of third party experts to scrutinize and help restructure, retool, and reorganize its operation to incorporate the best practices within the industry throughout its operation," the statement said.

Alaska Airlines Flight 261 took off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with scheduled stops in San Francisco and Seattle. The pilots reported problems with handling and were planning to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles when the stabilizer broke off, causing the plane to roll over and dive into the Pacific Ocean.

Crash investigators later concluded the jackscrew mechanism on the jetliner had jammed soon after takeoff.

Alaska Airlines has said the jackscrew failed because of extreme wear caused by a kind of grease recommended by Boeing. The airline also blamed the design, saying the threads on the nut of the jackscrew assembly failed.

MD-80 planes were built by McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing bought in 1997.

Safety investigators said the airline industry uses unreliable techniques to check for wear on the jackscrew threads. The NTSB board recommended that Boeing develop a more reliable test.

In a statement, Boeing said it is working on ways to make the inspections easier to perform and more reliable.

The board voted to recommend better procedures for lubricating the jackscrew mechanisms on DC-9, McDonnell Douglas MD-80/90 and Boeing 717 series airplanes.

Board members postponed a decision to recommend that those planes be retrofitted with a fail-safe mechanism to make sure a worn jackscrew part doesn't cause a crash. They did recommend that such a fail-safe mechanism be included in new horizontal stabilizer designs.

The safety board also recommended the FAA evaluate how the airline industry decides on maintenance intervals and that it make sure any changes undergo technical analysis.

After the crash, the FAA reviewed Alaska Airlines' maintenance practices and recommended that the carrier not be allowed to maintain its own planes if problems weren't fixed. The FAA now has 27 people overseeing Alaska Airlines, three times the number as when Flight 261 crashed.

The FAA also reviewed the maintenance programs of nine major airlines and reported in February that the carriers had made improvements.

Alaska Airlines and Boeing face wrongful-death lawsuits from the crash. Lawyer Jamie Lebovitz, who represents some of the victims' relatives, said the NTSB ruling strengthens their case.

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On the Net: NTSB: http://www.ntsb.gov

Alaska Airlines: http://www.alaskaair.com

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