Mexican authorities have temporarily grounded Aviacsa and the carrier's fleet of Boeing 737s over alleged safety violations.

Mexico's Secretary of Communications and Transportation (SCT) says in a statement that recent inspections by the Mexican DGAC uncovered irregularities in Aviacsa's maintenance operation and the carrier will be grounded until they are resolved. The SCT says Aviacsa has been given 60 days to fix the irregularities and if they are not resolved by the end of July the grounding will become permanent.

Aviacsa, however, claims in a statement the grounding is illegal because inspectors did not uncover anything that affects the airworthiness of any of its aircraft. An Aviacsa source says the carrier's lawyers are now preparing a legal challenge to the grounding, and it is confident it will be flying again within the next few days.

"The DGAC has made a lot of audits and haven't found anything that affects safety. There are a few small issues to fix but they don't affect airworthiness," the source says. "The law says we can fly. We expect to fly again in a few days."

He adds: "We are very confident about our situation, our technical competence and how we manage this company. This is not a security or safety issue."

Aviacsa has a fleet of 23 Boeing 737-200s and three 737-300s. But the Aviacsa source says the carrier has only been flying 18 or 19 of its aircraft over the last month due to capacity cuts in response to reduced demand following the outbreak of swine flu.

According to DGAC data, Aviacsa in the first quarter of this year was Mexico's fifth largest domestic carrier with 633,000 passengers. The Aviacsa source says the carrier currently operates about 85 flights per day, which is down about 25% since before the onset of the swine flu. This is in addition to a 30% to 40% capacity cut implemented over the last year in response to the economic downturn.

Aviacsa says in its statement the DGAC informed the carrier yesterday evening that it had to immediately ground 25 of its aircraft claiming the carrier failed to comply with an earlier order to resolve issues identified in inspections from April and May. But the carrier says all the recent inspections conducted by the DGAC concluded that all of its aircraft actually met airworthiness requirements.

Aviacsa acknowledges it received on 29 May a letter from the DGAC highlighting what the source says were minor non-airworthiness issues. Aviacsa says in its statement this letter gave the carrier five working days to respond but the decision to ground the carrier was made after only two working days.

Aviacsa in its statement also points out an outside consultant with more then 30 years of experience as a US FAA inspector recently concluded that Aviacsa's maintenance division meets international standards. The carrier adds it has also passed several US FAA audits in recent months required for Aviacsa to continue operating flights into the US, and to offer third-party maintenance services to US carriers.

Aviacsa is mainly a domestic carrier but also operates one daily flight between Monterrey and Las Vegas. It has a large maintenance operation at Mexico City, where it performs both light and heavy checks on 737s for Aviacsa and other carriers. It also has an engine shop where it overhauls Pratt & Whitney JT8Ds.

Aviacsa has already been fighting the SCT for several months over two threatened groundings citing unpaid air traffic control fees and fuel bills. Both disputes are still working their way through Mexican courts but according to Aviacsa a judge in the interim has ordered a stay which prevents the SCT from grounding the carrier.

But in its statement, the SCT says the current grounding does not derive from any lack of payment by the company. It says the suspension is purely a preventative measure to ensure safety of air transport. It says its other cases against the company are still going through the legal process.

The SCT adds the grounding is not unfounded because the DGAC, which falls under the SCT, has the responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the maximum safety of Mexican-registered aircraft.

While the grounding order affects 25 aircraft rather than the entire fleet of 26, the Aviacsa source says the carrier is not operating the one aircraft the order does not seem to include. He says the management team continues to work as normal, preparing for the resumption of services. Flight crews are currently not working but will continue to be paid in the interim.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news