Video: Study: Unsafe planes allowed to fly

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    >>> u.s.a. investigation found that 65,000 flights took off in the past six years that should never have left the ground. why? the planes were not properly maintained. a retired american airlines captain and aviation expert. on friday i had to wait an hour or so because there was a mechanical problem with the plane. i always go into this under the assumption that the pilot and crew will make absolutely sure everything is working as it should be.

    >> that's generally the case. you find these discrepancies, it's very rare it's a cockpit crew that makes a decision to arbitrarily take off when they know something is not right. we need to separate the two extremes of these problems. one, m.e.l., minimum equipment list, there are items on that list that you are supposed to defer only for a certain length of time and then get repaired but never has to do with the safety of flight. they are a discrepancy and if they don't get repaired on time, they would go on this list. then there are other things, like stuffing oil rags into the cap for oil rather than putting the cap there. and that happened. and that's really serious.

    >> the usa today investigation got the information through the freedom of information request and it reveals substandard repairs, unqualified mechanics and lacks oversight by airlines and the federal aviation administration aren't usual. they say, in fact, 70% of these repairs go to outside contractors where maybe they're not as well trained as the crews who are actually working at the airports on these planes. is there something system wide that needs to change?

    >> you bet. i mean, i was against it when the first mechanic was outsourced to some place that we can't get to readily, can't oversee properly, can't make sure about the training and everything else. we cannot ensure the american traveling public that some guy, some place else is really qualified to do the work or that we're watching to see how well he does it. my feeling was i want to look out on the ramp from the cockpit and see somebody with the airline representative that i'm flying on the back of his uniform. i don't want to see something hidden that i cannot assess and make a judgment. i have to tell you something. you know, when these cockpit crews take off, they often don't know what's going on with the rest of their airplane and it's all a mind-set. it starts at the top, contessa, at the very, very top in terms of what safety is and what it isn't. if the top has the right mind-set it will filter down and get done and get done right every time.

    >> jim tillman, here's hoping those executives start joining the rest of us and wondering how safe their planes are. thank
updated 2/2/2010 11:59:33 AM ET 2010-02-02T16:59:33

Reporting the results of a six-month investigation, USA TODAY on Tuesday said that millions of passengers were on at least 65,000 U.S. flights over the last six years that should not have taken off because planes weren't properly maintained.

While just a fraction of the 63.8 million U.S. airline flights over that time, the 65,000 figure was criticized by John Goglia, a former airline mechanic who was a National Transportation Safety Board member from 1995 to 2004.

"Many repairs are not being done or done properly, and too many flights are leaving the ground in what the FAA calls 'unairworthy,' or unsafe, condition," Goglia told USA TODAY.

USA TODAY said its investigation found that substandard repairs, unqualified mechanics and lax oversight by airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are not unusual.

Its investigation included an analysis of government fines against airlines for maintenance violations and penalty letters sent to them that were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

It cited these key findings:

  • Airlines contract about 70 percent of their maintenance work to repair shops in the U.S. and abroad, where mistakes can be made by untrained and ill-equipped personnel, the Department of Transportation's inspector general says.
  • Airlines also disregard FAA inspectors' findings to keep planes flying, defer necessary repairs beyond permissible time frames, use unapproved parts and perform their own sloppy maintenance work, according to FAA documents.
  • The FAA levied $28.2 million in fines and proposed fines against 25 U.S. airlines for maintenance violations that occurred during the past six years. In many cases, planes operated for months before the FAA found maintenance deficiencies. In some cases, airlines continued to fly planes after the FAA found deficiencies in them.

In its defense, the FAA said it "sets an exceptionally high bar" for the required level of safety for airlines and that the fines indicate that problems were detected and corrected.

The airline industry countered that its planes are safe, pointing to millions of incident-free flights.

U.S. airlines "regard safety as their highest responsibility," and "their maintenance programs reflect that commitment to safety," Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, told USA TODAY.

The ATA said member airlines haven't had a fatal accident "attributable to maintenance" since Jan. 31, 2000. That date is when an Alaska Airlines jet flying from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco, crashed into the Pacific Ocean off California, killing all 88 people aboard.

The accident was caused by a loss of plane pitch control after threads of a screw assembly on the tail failed, according to the NTSB, which concluded that Alaska Airlines did not sufficiently lubricate the assembly, causing excessive thread wear. The FAA had approved extending the time between lubrications, which contributed to the accident, the NTSB said.

A USA TODAY analysis of NTSB data showed that maintenance was "a cause, factor or finding" in 18 other accidents since then. Some were on scheduled flights of airlines that are ATA members, some were on airlines that aren't members. No one was killed or injured in 10 of the accidents; 43 people were killed and 60 injured in the others.

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