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Report: 65,000 flights should not have flown

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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.