American optimistic of avoiding further AD crises

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American Airlines is optimistic that an ongoing review of the US airworthiness directive (AD) compliance system will result in improvements that will prevent the type of widespread aircraft groundings seen in the country last year.

In one of the most high profile incidents the airline had to suddenly cancel more than 3,000 flights in a week when the FAA expressed concern over the spacing of ties on wiring bundles in the landing gear bay of Boeing MD-80s and the direction that retention clips and lacing cords faced.

The technique American mechanics was using was subsequently approved as an alternative means of compliance (AMOC) by the FAA.

Other carriers endured similar short notice groundings, usually following self-disclosure of issues, leading to thousands of passengers being stranded.

But American Airlines executive VP operations Bob Reding says a review of the AD process being conducted via an Air Transport Association (ATA) working group is producing promising results that should make such incidents a thing of the past.

He says: "We have a working group of the ATA, FAA and original equipment manufacturers (OEM) /FAA/OEMs on how we can improve the AD process. That came out of the MD-80 process and our competitors too. It is about how we can ensure there is no safety issue and not getting caught up in a compliance problem.

"One idea is that the service bulletin ought to have a statement right at the top that says that generally good maintenance techniques and processes apply. Then you say in red letters what the intent of the AD is - and write it in 'English'.

"That will further the safety of our industry and make sure that anyone sitting in the office and FAA all the way down to the guy in the front line in the cold and the dark understands it."

He concedes that the FAA inspectors were simply doing their job, but adds: "We need to provide the flexibility so that it makes sense without degrading the safety level. The FAA is very engaged and I have every hope that we will find a better process.

"We hope we will have a much better process and we have also recommended that, if there is an issue that an inspector finds, then we have the right resolution process to ensure that we only ground the aircraft when there is a true safety issue.

"We never want to gamble with safety but we also want to be able to use our good judgement. ADs address the issue but many of them have a compliance period often over years, and 99.9% of ADs recognise that you need time to perform them."

The outcome is hoped to be one that gives mechanics credit for their judgement in implementing ADs in a way that achieves their aim.

Reding says: "The public hearings that resulted in the FAA doing a follow-up AD audit process resulted in the FAA taking a different approach on how they look at AD compliance which is that if an AD says a tie has to be one inch apart then it has to be one inch apart.

"So you are taking out a mechanic's judgement in seeing that you have a clamp here or you have to rotate this component to perform the work, and [previously] we would do that without going through an AMOC process.

"In the end all the items that got us into trouble all became AMOCs. So it was a process change. But when it comes to an AD there is no more leeway or judgement allowed.

"So we now have a philosophy of 100% compliance and if you cannot at the front line comply with that AD then you stop and we have an AMOC. So we learned a lot from that.

"We pride ourselves on really doing excellent work. To put it in context we have had hundreds of FAA inspections and thousands of ADs and there was not a single finding of a safety issue. This was not about safety."