Chasing the dollar – Another avoidable air crash – Alaskan Airlines Flight 261

As it is naturally distressing, I had hoped that I had finished writing articles on air crashes and I am sure, as most of you fly, that you will have found my articles unnerving.

But the reconstruction that I watched this morning has made my blood boil. I have no chance to change the airline industry but all I wish is for my readers to be more informed.

On 31st January 2000, Alaskan Airlines Flight 261, a MD83, crashed into the Pacific, killing everyone on board.

I want to make three statements

  1. This crash was totally avoidable
  2. The crash killed 88 people
  3. The bodies were visually unidentifiable

Just think about that third statement for a minute. In the end, the bodies were identified by

  1. Fingerprints,
  2. Dental records
  3. Tattoos
  4. Personal items
  5. Anthropological examination, which is a “comfortable” way of saying that the bodies were identified by DNA

To put it succinctly, the crash was caused by the failure of the “Horizontal Stabiliser Trim System Jack Screw”. This was caused by insufficient maintenance on the Jack Screw, leading to mechanical failure. Basically, the horizontal stabliser made the plane go up and down. If this failed, the only way to stop the plane falling out of the sky were the elevators on the rear edge

Between 1985 and 1996, the air industry was in a bit of a downturn and it hit Alaskan Airlines quite hard.

The management’s response was to:

  • Increase the frequency that the planes flew
  • Cut costs by increasing the intervals between maintenance checks

At the height of this “low period” the maintenance intervals on the jack screw had been increased by 400%; that is FOUR TIMES the recommended maintenance intervals set out by Macdonald Douglas.

[Let’s compare that to a car. If the manufacturer’s recommendations were that your car was serviced every 8,000 miles, you would now be servicing your car every 32,000 miles]

An engineering supervisor, named John Liotine, recommended that the jack screw be replaced but this was overruled by the next shift’s supervisor and the plane was put back into service. Luckily, Mr Liotine kept  a record of what he had instructed the mechanics to do, off site.

The crash took place two months before the newly revised and substantially extended service interval.

When he found out about the crash, he blew the whistle by reporting the airline to the US FAA (the regulatory body that overseas plane safety, supposedly). Following this, the FAA raided Alaskan Airlines and seized maintenance records. These showed that documents recording maintenance work had been falsified and they found on some of the planes that the jack screw was in urgent need of replacement.

At this point, the FAA should have either closed the airline down or put their own people into the maintenance area to independently supervise the work on the planes but they did neither.

Alaska Airlines never faced any criminal charges for the blatant disregard of the proper maintenance of their planes and, of course, for the lives of all of their passengers but were just fined instead.

John Liotine, however, was suspended on standard pay and later resigned after a financial settlement was reached with the airline.

Macdonald Douglas were never mandated by the FAA and NTSB to alter the design of the jack screw, as it would have cost too much on an ageing design.

During the hearings, Macdonald Douglas stated that the system had a built in redundancy. As Mary Schiavo, the former Inspector General in the Department of Transportation said and I paraphrase “It is laughable that they can say there is a redundancy; there was just one screw and one nut

It just goes to show that the airline industry, including the FAA, see those tragic deaths as “the price of doing business” and is totally driven by money.

I have been to the states once on a trip to Orlando to go to Disney World. If I had known then what I know now, I would never have taken the trip. I never intend to go to the US again, ever.

The news media show interest in these crashes for a day or two, it is then forgotten and they move onto the next story. They never follow up with the reasons for the crashes and so Joe Public is totally unaware.

The following extract, from Wikipedia, is frightening

The List of McDonnell Douglas MD-80 operators lists the current operators of the aircraft, and any of its variants. As of September 2019, a total of 207 MD-80 aircraft (all variants) were in active service and 10 were being delivered as used aircraft.

I have flown many times. I have been on aircraft where we have had to change aircraft because of a maintenance issue or indeed because the whole air crew were going to exceed their permitted flying hours.

It is very inconvenient and used to seriously piss me off but I would rather be inconvenienced and have a fresh crew or a fully working plane than crash.

But, that horrible green money monster is sitting on most companies’ shoulders now, not just airlines.

Published by David Hender (copyright owner- all rights reserved)

If you want to know me, you first need to understand where I have been and where I am going

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