Alaska Airlines grounds MD-80s for repairs

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The Independent US

Alaska Airlines grounded more than half its fleet of MD-80 aircraft yesterday for emergency tests on a tail-plane component whose failure is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 88 passengers and crew after crashing into the Pacific last January.

Alaska Airlines grounded more than half its fleet of MD-80 aircraft yesterday for emergency tests on a tail-plane component whose failure is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 88 passengers and crew after crashing into the Pacific last January.

Facing heavy criticism over its safety procedures, as well as two separate official investigations into the crash of flight 261, the company insisted the groundings were a precautionary measure.

The groundings will focus attention on the company's confidence in its own maintenance department, which has admitted failing to replace a jackscrew in the doomed aircraft's tail stabiliser, even though the first of two safety checks suggested it was dangerously eroded.

In common with flight 261, the 18 grounded aircraft have jackscrews manufactured by Alaska at its maintenance facilities, not by Boeing, which builds the MD-80. The airline said it was concerned its instruments might leave room for faulty readings on the components' flight-worthiness.

Alaska, considered a model airline before the crash, has since been troubled by allegations that it skimped on maintenance to save time and money. More than 60 maintenance workers at Seattle airport complained in March that they had been told by their manager to cut corners. The manager has since been transferred.

Alaska's chief maintenance officer, John Fowler, resigned in June in the hope that his departure would enable the company to "turn the corner and move forward".

The Federal Aviation Authority threatened at one stage to shut down Alaska altogether, but relented last month, saying the company had improved its safety procedures. The company still runs the risk of criminal prosecution if federal investigators conclude that its checks on the doomed MD-80 were wilfully negligent.

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