LOS ANGELES -- Federal airline safety regulators, alarmed by Alaska Airlines' maintenance procedures and record-keeping, Friday proposed prohibiting the carrier from returning any plane to the sky after routine work at its two repair facilities.
The extraordinary threat by the Federal Aviation Administration against the airline, one of the nation's 10 largest carriers, follows an investigation this spring that found substandard documentation and inspections of its aircraft maintenance. The FAA launched the probe after an Alaska Airlines' jetliner en route from Mexico to Seattle crashed into the Pacific Ocean January 31, killing all 88 people on board.
''We have serious concerns about critical processes, including management effectiveness,'' said Nick Lacey, the Director of Flight Standards for the FAA. ''There were minor glitches ... across the spectrum.''
The airline has a week to give the federal agency a formal plan of how it intends to correct the problems. If that response is satisfactory, Lacey said, the FAA, which currently has its own inspectors helping supervise maintenance at the airline's facilities in Oakland and Seattle, could scale back or even cancel its proposed order.
If the FAA rejects that plan, all planes serviced at Alaska Airlines maintenance facilities would in effect be grounded indefinitely, beginning 30 days later. The airline sends about five of its planes for routine, comprehensive check-ups each month.
Such a move could cripple the Seattle-based airline by shrinking its 88-plane fleet. Alaska has had one of the best reputations for safety and service in the airline industry, but has been plagued all year by serious trouble.
FAA officials were careful to emphasize Friday, however, that their intensive investigation of the airline's fleet and its maintenance facilities has not turned up any signs of poor mechanical work or unsafe jetliners.
The chairman of Alaska Airlines, John F. Kelly, expressed confidence that the company would be able to prove it is taking all necessary steps to insure that every plane leaving its maintenance facilities has undergone thorough, clearly documented safety inspections.
''I'm pleased to say that many, if not all, of the findings of the FAA outlined this morning were addressed by us over recent weeks as soon as they were raised,'' Kelly said in a statement. ''This announcement today serves as formal notice to us to institutionalize those changes during the next 30 days.''
The cause of Alaska Airlines Flight 261's sudden drop into the Pacific Ocean is still under investigation. But the National Transportation Safety Board contends that a small but serious mechanical flaw -- a worn jackscrew on the plane's horizontal stabilizer that had not been lubricated -- may have been the source of the disaster. The apparatus controls the up-down pitch of the aircraft.
That crash was the worst of a series of mishaps and crises that have engulfed the carrier. Just last week, Alaska announced that it intends to dismiss two pilots who recently failed to pressurize the cabin of a passenger jet and kept flying after repressurizing the aircraft but depleting its emergency oxygen supply.
A federal grand jury is investigating allegations that managers at the Alaska Airlines maintenance hangar in Oakland may have signed off on aircraft work that was never done. Company mechanics in Seattle also have complained of being pressured by some supervisors to finish repair work too quickly -- apparently in an effort to reduce the length of costly stays in maintenance hangars.
Federal inspectors have concluded that the West Coast airline's core problem appears to be in documenting and reviewing its maintenance work.
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