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Pilots defend safety of popular MD-80s

/ Source: The Associated Press

Pilots who regularly fly MD-80s for U.S. airlines defend the aircraft as extremely safe despite last week's mass groundings that followed failed inspections.

Some pilots said the airlines caused the controversy by not complying with Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness directives issued 18 months earlier. Others say the FAA was trying to save face with the groundings after revelations that Southwest Airlines Co. flew dozens of planes that had missed inspections.

But none of the MD-80 pilots interviewed by The Associated Press criticized the decision to ground the jets so that wiring bundles could be wrapped to meet federal safety standards, even if they weren't in dangerous condition. Their reasoning: Air safety can never be taken too seriously.

"It's a safety of flight issue," Jennifer Ewald, who flies the MD-80 for AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, said Monday. "I'd rather have those things finished and accomplished on the ground rather than having to deal with them in the air."

American, Alaska Airlines and other carriers grounded hundreds of MD-80 aircraft last week, wreaking havoc with air travel schedules. The move came after the FAA found that airlines had not properly complied with a Sept. 5, 2006 air worthiness directive on MD-80s that was issued due to reports of shorted wires, evidence of worn-down power cables, and fuel system reviews conducted by the manufacturer, Boeing Co.

The twin-engine, single-aisle jets were introduced in 1980 and made by McDonnell Douglas Corp., which was later bought by Boeing. They are operated in the greatest numbers by American, which has 300 MD-80s averaging 18 years old that comprise nearly half its fleet.

Despite the aircraft's relatively advanced age and two fatal crashes last year involving the MD-80 series in Thailand and Turkey, American pilot Kevin Cornwell said it is safe and dependable.

"It's a wonderful airplane," said Cornwell. "I've got 11,000 hours in the left seat (as captain) and we've had one or two minor emergencies but never an engine fire or anything major in all that time."

He said the FAA has been "way too lax" in its oversight of airline maintenance but disagreed with those who see the groundings as grandstanding by the agency, calling it "strictly a safety thing."

Patrick Smith, another MD-80 pilot, said that despite the rash of groundings and cancellations, the safety issues involving the jets were nothing unusual.

"It's easy to construe these measures as an indicator of danger or some impending crisis," said Smith, who declined to identify the U.S. airline he flies for because he writes an online column as an aviation expert and doesn't represent its views. "But I see it as a very proactive step to ward off trouble in the future."

He said the FAA was probably trying to save face after the Southwest revelations. But while the groundings may have been "a radical step," he said, it's hard to say it wasn't the proper step to take.

"The system works," Smith said.

Ewald and Cornwell, among other American pilots, link the MD-80 issue to what they say is the failure of its company's management to spend enough on maintenance and training.

"In the past, the company's always tried to be the leader in safety and maintenance," Ewald said. "That margin of safety has been reduced."

American has strongly reiterated its commitment to safety, saying the MD-80s are safe and that it was a compliance issue, not safety of flight. Chairman and CEO Gerard Arpey says the company found no frayed or chafing wires on any plane.

"We believed that the aircraft were always operated safely. In no case did we find chafing of the wires," he said at a news conference last week.

"I put my kids on these airplanes all the time," Arpey said.