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FAA Uncovers 17-Year Safety Violation at Northwest

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed a $1.45 million fine against Northwest airlines for failing to inspect cockpit wiring for 17 years. According to the Associated Press, “The proposed civil penalty has its roots in a 1990 Federal Aviation Administration order to inspect wires in the cockpit window heating system on Boeing 757s. The FAA said wires that are too small could overheat and even cause a fire.

“The order said the planes should be inspected within 90 days. Planes with the wrong wires were supposed to be grounded until they were fixed.

“However, Northwest’s 757 maintenance manual written earlier in 1990 left out the inspections. The planes flew until May 27, 2008 before the airline realized its error, the FAA said. The planes flew more than 90,000 flights from late 2005 until the problem was discovered, according to the FAA.”

At this point in my not-terribly-illustrious career writing about the airline industry, it takes a lot to surprise me. But there are a few aspects of this that really surprise me. First: 17 years? How did Northwest and the FAA not pick up on this for 17 years? Didn’t anyone fact-check the manual? The AP reports that even after the violations were discovered, Northwest operated 42 flights before completing inspections.

Also surprising is that the fine is so small. After all, American is staring down a $10 million fine for what sounds like a comparable safety issue, so why is Northwest only getting hit with $1.45 million for its 17-year snafu? Well, according to the AP, “The FAA’s proposed fine covers the period from Dec. 1, 2005, until the day Northwest discovered the missed inspections. The FAA has a five-year limit on how far back it can levy large civil penalties.” That explains it.

Delta is on the hook for the fine, having fully absorbed the carrier under its brand this year. Buyer’s remorse, anyone?

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