Airline maintenance games are old news

atccover.JPGBack in 1986 IEEE Spectrum took a long hard look at the state of the U.S. commercial aviation system. As part of that effort, I spent several months researching air traffic control along with fellow writer Paul Wallich, who also was talking to the folks that maintained the aircraft themselves. I remember being horrified at how the airlines and sometimes even the FAA played fast and loose with maintenance rules. Paul and I learned all sorts of new language. â''Put the timber to it,â'' meant to sign off on work that was never done, assuming itâ''ll be noticed on the next inspection. â''Discrepancy,â'' was the FAA word for overlooking a defect noticed by mechanics, or putting a plane back into service before a set of repairs is complete. Paul talked to a lot of mechanics, and found out that inspection documents often didnâ''t reflect the true state of the aircraft. An example one mechanic gave: a check at American Airlines found that an emergency exit door was stuck. He got it through an FAA inspection with a liberal spraying of WD-40, but shortly thereafter discovered the door was sticking again. Still, he had signed paperwork in hand, so released the plane to fly.

This kind of thing happens all the time, mechanics said. And sometimes FAA inspectors, assigned to remote regional offices, go along; John Oâ''Brien, then representing the Air Line Pilots Association, told Paul, â''The further from headquarters you are as a inspector, the more on your own you are. Unless youâ''re very independent and strong-willed, you may be subject to all kinds of pressures and influence.â''

Since then, Iâ''ve flown with my eyes wide open. I know that broken lights and loose compartment doors arenâ''t going to get fixed any time soon, and that a lot more is broken than I can see. I know that a lot of maintenance can be legally deferred until an aircraft reaches a maintenance base or parts are available, and airlines play games with what that means. And I reassure myself that redundancies mean that the plane wonâ''t come crashing down out of the sky, and that pilots are smart enough not to take off if things are really bad. Though I had to wonder when I was on an aircraft that made an emergency 1 a.m. landing at a closed, icy, Midwest airport because it lost one of its hydraulic systems, if maybe a minimum requirement that two of three hydraulic systems needed to be working wasnâ''t quite enough.

And last month, when I got a 5 a.m. phone call that my 9 a.m. flight was being canceled for a â''mechanicalâ'', and I was rebooked on a conveniently half-empty afternoon flight, I shrugged my shoulders at yet another airline game. It was clear to me that the airline was going save money by combining two empty flights, and was using the â''deferred maintenanceâ'' list as an excuse to pull a plane out of service. After all, what passenger would want to go ahead and fly on a â''brokenâ'' plane, never mind that, had that flight been sold out, the maintenance would have continued to be deferred.

So now the FAA is cracking down and making the airlines do all the inspections and maintenance they were supposed to be doing all along. And flights are being canceled, and tens of thousands of passengers inconvenienced. Of course, with the high cost of fuel, many of those flights were likely not making a profit anyway, so stranding passengers isnâ''t costing the airlines anything but good will, something thatâ''s been in short supply for a while. Not that making the industry do the job that itâ''s supposed to do is a bad thing, but come on, does anyone really think the FAA would continue to force planes out of service if most of those flights were profitable?

Itâ''s simply a convenient time right now to do a little deferred maintenance and enforcement. And during this little contraction, airlines will be able to jack up prices because of seat shortages while they tout their concern for customer safety. And flying may really be safer, for a while, anyway, until profit margins again prompt airlines to â''put the timberâ'' to problems instead of really dealing with then.

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