Airline fined after plane ran out of oil

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British Midland was ordered to pay pounds 175,000 in fines and costs for putting at risk the lives of 183 passengers and crew in a case which raises questions about aviation maintenance procedures.

Luton Crown Court heard that both engines of a Boeing 737 on a flight from East Midlands to Lanzarote on 23 February 1995 almost ran out of oil because the gearbox covers had been left off during maintenance the previous night.

The engines had less than 10 per cent of the required amount of oil left, which meant the plane was within minutes of losing all power when it made an emergency landing at Luton airport after a 17-minute flight.

Judge Daniel Rodwell said: "It is only through the vigilance of the pilot and his crew that the dramatic sudden loss of oil pressure was noticed and the aircraft was able to land safely. Had they not noticed, the engine very shortly after would have, if not seized, suffered such a dramatic loss of power that the aircraft would have crashed with a very high probability of killing all 189 on board."

It was the first prosecution brought against a scheduled airline under legislation introduced in 1989 and is a severe embarrassment for Britain's second largest operator.

As a result of errors by a senior engineer and a fitter, the gearbox covers were left off, allowing oil to leak out. Both men were sacked. Judge Rodwell said he had to treat the lapse as "serious". He said the public must have confidence that airlines do not "cut corners" on safety.

The verdict coincided with the publication of a report by the Air Accident Investigations Branch which linked the airline with two other potential catastrophes caused by faulty maintenance by night staff. In June 1990, the cockpit window of a BAC1-11 fell out and the pilot was almost sucked out. He was only saved by a steward holding on to his legs. The wrong bolts had been installed. And in 1993, flaps on a Virgin A320 were left in the maintenance mode, which meant the aircraft could only turn right.

John Woolf, British Midland's deputy chairman, said:"This has been a difficult day for us, but we have learnt from the experience. We have completely changed our procedures."