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Northwest operated safely, FAA says

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Northwest Airlines has been operating safely during its mechanics union strike, according to a report released Wednesday by the FAA. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
The Federal Aviation Administration says Northwest Airlines operated safely in the early days of the mechanics' union strike that began in August. That's the agency's finding after investigating an FAA inspector's concerns about safety at Northwest.

The inspector cited a number of mistakes by the airline's replacement workers and managers, who have been filling in for striking mechanics. Sen. Mark Dayton requested an FAA investigation into the complaints in September. The FAA says Northwest's operations are safe, though the investigation identified some problems.

St. Paul, Minn. — In August, FAA inspector Mark Lund raised concerns about safety problems he observed in Northwest's maintenance operations in the first days of the mechanics' strike. The airline brought in replacement workers and managers to perform its maintenance work.

Lund's concerns included maintenance errors that were eventually caught, inadequate training for the replacement workers, and poor documentation of aircraft repairs. Lund said the situation was jeopardizing life or property.

He was reassigned to a desk job after Northwest complained about him. Lund couldn't be reached for comment, nor could officials with the union representing him.

The FAA report says inspectors were aware of each instance of a maintenance error Lund cited, and the agency has focused attention on Northwest' training program for replacement mechanics, the replacements' performance, and parts handling.

But overall, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory says Mark Lund's allegations weren't cause for alarm.

"Based on our investigation and the ongoing surveillance we have going on at Northwest, Northwest met safety standards," she said.

Cory says Northwest did revise its training for replacement workers after the FAA questioned the effectiveness of the training.

The FAA is taking enforcement actions arising from at least one of Lund's concerns. Spokeswoman Cory says it has more to do with administration than maintenance.

The situation involved a Northwest manager's decision to revert to a previous procedure for handling certain parts. Cory says the older procedure was FAA approved.

"But that individual at that level did not have the authority to make the decision on his own, and it should've been made in concert with the FAA, again to make sure we're all on the same page. So this is the administrative issue we're all looking at. It's not a safety issue, it's basically an individual made a decision to go back to previous procedure without having the authority to do so," Cory said.

Northwest's spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch says the company believes the FAA's report "shows that Northwest operates safely and meets safety standards."

He says the airline is committed to meeting with the FAA whenever an issue arises and will work to resolve the issue.

Hal Myers of Northwest's pilots' union says operations with the replacement mechanics have gone more smoothly since the beginning of the mechanics strike in August. He says he wasn't closely familiar with the specific allegations raised by FAA inspector Mark Lund about replacement worker performance. And he says the initial problems pilots observed with the replacements in the early days of the strike were relatively minor.

"It took longer for the replacement mechanics to perform the work, and in some cases they were not quite familiar with how to properly complete the paperwork," says Myers. "Those were the primary issues our pilots encountered after the strike."

Northwest still faces further investigation. The FAA is beginning another inquiry into additional allegations of potential safety violations. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory couldn't comment on the substance of the investigation, and Northwest's Kurt Ebenhoch says the company has not yet learned of any new allegations regarding its safety practices.