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FAA union: Inspector's memo leads others to raise concerns

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More FAA inspectors have reportedly come forward to express concerns about the safety of Northwest Airlines planes, while the airline's mechanics union is on strike. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
The union that represents Federal Aviation Administration inspectors says more FAA personnel are stepping forward and raising safety concerns about Northwest Airlines. A Twin Cities-based inspector wrote to FAA management three days into the strike, alleging maintenance errors by Northwest managers and replacement workers. The FAA says the airline is safe and no other inspectors have come forward with similar concerns.

St. Paul, Minn. — Just a few days into the now nearly three-week-old Northwest Airlines mechanics strike, FAA inspector Mark Lund wrote a memo to FAA management sharply criticizing the maintenance work of some replacement employees and management mechanics.

Minnesota Public Radio News obtained a copy of Lund's memo from a source close to the situation, and the FAA has authenticated the document.

Lund cited numerous incidents of maintenance errors.

-- A manager unable to conduct an engine test of an A-320 aircraft, because he can't find the correct switches on the instrument panel.

-- A replacement worker trying to assess the condition of brake wear pins. but unaware the brakes must be engaged for a proper inspection.

-- Repairs on a DC-10 wing fuel tank completed without a Northwest-required "OK to close" inspection. The omission was discovered, the tank was reopened, and the inspection completed.

-- A Northwest manager planning to allow a DC-10 to fly to Hawaii, even though human waste from a damaged lavatory duct had spilled into an electrical equipment bay housing flight and navigational components. The FAA intervened and ensured the plane was cleaned and checked.

Lund's memo concluded the situation at Northwest "jeopardizes life or property."

He called on FAA management to bolster scrutiny of Northwest, and require the airline to pare back its flight operations to prevent maintenance errors.

Northwest has declined to comment on Lund's memo, and instead reissued a statement saying that safety is of paramount importance to every employee at Northwest Airlines.

Lund's memo coincided with a big increase in the number of Northwest planes out of service early in the strike. The company's Web site now indicates the number of planes out of service has declined significantly, and is lower than it was before the strike.

Several people have come forward stating that they are concurring with what inspector Mark Lund is saying.
- Linda Goodrich, FAA inspectors' union

In a letter sent Tuesday to the striking mechanics union, Northwest said its technical operations in the Twin Cities and Detroit are functioning smoothly.

Lund is not talking with reporters. But officials with the union that represents FAA inspectors are.

Linda Goodrich is the national vice president for flight standards with the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, known as PASS.

Goodrich says numerous FAA inspectors assigned to Northwest and other carriers continue see the same maintenance shortfalls at Northwest that prompted Lund to write his safety memorandum.

"Several people have come forward stating that they are concurring with what Mark is saying," says Goodrich. "And they, too, want attention to safety, and they're raising the concerns through the proper channels."

But FAA spokesman Greg Martin says none of the agency's other roughly 80 full-time inspectors assigned to Northwest have contacted agency management to express concerns similar to those in the Lund memo.

"We have received no reports similar in content or scope of Mr. Lund, or anything to indicate that Northwest is not flying in a safe and airworthy manner," says Martin. "Certainly I can't confirm what the union may or may not have received, other than it would probably be more helpful, and in everybody interest, that if they are receiving such reports that they would submit them to us."

Martin says Northwest's operations are safe. He says the FAA has not changed its oversight of the airline since receiving Lund's list of concerns.

Martin says Lund's memo and complaints about Lund from Northwest triggered extensive investigations by both the FAA and the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General.

One inquiry is examining Lund's safety claims. The second is looking into allegations from Northwest that Lund, himself a union activist although not affiliated with Northwest's mechanics union, has acted unprofessionally and intimidated Northwest's replacement workforce.

Linda Goodrich from the union that represents Lund and other FAA inspectors says documenting maintenance concerns through the normal channels does not appear to be getting FAA management's attention, and she expects frustrated inspectors will soon take their complaints to the next level.

"If you see a systemic problem and you see lack of change, then you are left with no other choice but to start filing a letter of investigation, notifying the facility that you're investigating a particular problem. And that leads to a potential enforcement action and I know that that's where they're at now," says Goodrich. "They're starting to fill out the paperwork getting into the next phase, because the carrier's not changing the way they're doing their business."

The FAA says it hopes to have a clearer understanding of the various claims Lund and Northwest management have made by sometime next week.