Object may have caused plane emergency

March 12, 2009 3:29:32 PM PDT
American Airlines says the engine failure that caused a jet to make an emergency landing in New York on Wednesday may have been caused by an object - something other than a bird - sucked into the engine. An American spokesman on Thursday defended the airline's maintenance of the jet, saying it had been put through all required safety inspections and that it appeared to be operating normally.

The jet suffered engine failure taking off Wednesday from LaGuardia Airport and had to make an emergency landing at nearby Kennedy Airport. Pieces of one of the jet's two engines were found embedded in the fuselage, and other metal debris landed on the roof of a plumbing business.

American mechanics, federal inspectors and representatives of engine maker Pratt & Whitney will inspect the engine at the airline's maintenance facility in Tulsa, Okla., American spokesman Tim Smith said.

Smith said "early speculation" centered on the belief that an object got sucked into the engine and damaged the fan blades, possibly on an earlier flight.

Smith said the plane had gone through all required inspections and "there was nothing in our previous maintenance checks to indicate any issue that could be related or connected to the failure of this engine."

The Wall Street Journal, citing sources, said the plane had a history of engine problems and hadn't received follow-up work after discrepancies were spotted in fuel usage between the two engines.

Wednesday's emergency landing was the second involving an American Airlines jet in less than a month. Last month, an American Boeing 757 leaving John Wayne Airport landed quickly at Los Angeles International Airport after an engine died minutes after takeoff.

Nobody was hurt in either incident.

William Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said the airline industry as a whole has about one emergency landing per week.

"Twice in a month (involving American jetliners) doesn't ring any bells with me," Waldock said. "The one in New York is a little more significant because parts of the engine came off. The FAA will spend more time on that one."

The New York incident is the latest in a series of events raising questions about maintenance at American, which has already come under renewed scrutiny by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Last August, the FAA asked American to pay a $7.1 million civil penalty - one of the largest ever assessed against an airline - for continuing to fly two jets after an FAA inspector and American's own mechanics found problems with their autopilot systems.

American, a unit of Fort Worth-based AMR Corp., the nation's second-largest airline operator, is fighting the penalty.

The jet involved in Wednesday's emergency landing and the two that experienced problems with their autopilot systems were all McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series aircraft, workhorse planes that went into service in 1980 and were manufactured until 1999.

American operates the world's largest fleet of MD-80 series planes, with 275 of them. When oil prices spiked last year, American stepped up plans to replace them with more fuel-efficient jets, but that will take years.

As they age, the MD-80s are facing more maintenance issues. Last July, the FAA ordered airlines to inspect certain MD-80 models - including most of American's - for cracks on overwing frames. Last April, American grounded its entire MD-80 fleet to repack the electrical wiring, causing the cancellation of more than 3,000 flights.

American officials first downplayed the significance of the wiring work, saying it dealt mostly with the spacing of plastic clips to hold wires together, and later they suggested the airline had been the victim of stepped-up enforcement by FAA, which had been embarrassed by accusations of lax oversight of safety at Southwest Airlines Co.

This week, the National Transportation Safety Board ordered Rolls Royce to redesign its Trent 800 series engines used on some Boeing 777 jets. American operates 47 of them. Investigators said ice built up in fuel lines on long, high-altitude international flights, including a British Airways jet that crashed short of a runway at London's Heathrow Airport.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said instructions that the agency gave to pilots last year - such as revving the plane's engines during long, high-altitude flights - would "adequately address the safety issues while Rolls Royce completes its redesign of the system."

Shares of AMR rose 5 cents to $3.30 in afternoon trading.