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"Airline faces safety issues"


 
Thursday, October 21, 2004 

Airline faces safety issues
By Steve Halvonik
The Pittsburgh (PA) Tribune-Review


An airline industry expert said Wednesday that puncture holes found in the
skins of three US Airways' jets -- including one that had stopped at
Pittsburgh International Airport -- represented a safety risk that could
ruin the company. 

"When someone does something like this, you've got a safety issue," said
Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm based in
Evergreen, Colo. "It's not the puncture holes that pose a safety risk. It
means you've got an absolutely sick person running around." 

The FBI is investigating the cause of the holes, which were discovered after
a U.S. bankruptcy judge imposed 21 percent pay cuts on US Airways' 28,000
workers last Friday. 

"We don't know where our investigation is going to lead us," said David
Martinez, a spokesman for the FBI's field office in Charlotte, N.C. 

Another FBI agent told the Charlotte Observer that the holes did not appear
to have been caused by regular wear and tear. 

If the cause proves to be vandalism, Boyd said, it could scare away
customers during the busy holiday season, forcing the cash-strapped airline
into liquidation. 

"Whoever did this is trying to kill the airline," Boyd said. 

According to the FBI, the puncture holes were discovered Monday morning in
two planes during routine visual inspections by mechanics at
Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. One of the planes
had stopped for a layover in Pittsburgh, Martinez said. 

The holes were about the same size as those of a screwdriver head, and were
consistent with those found in a third plane, in Orlando, Fla., following a
layover in Charlotte. 

The holes were found in the skins of the jets' bellies, where cargo is
stored. They were large enough to be noticed, but they posed no significant
threat to the safety of the planes, L. Nick Lacey, a former Federal Aviation
Administration official told the Associated Press. 

No passengers were on the planes when the holes were found. 

As a safety precaution, the FAA is bolstering security around US Airways'
flights, a spokesman confirmed. 

"When airlines are experiencing financial difficulties, we increase our
surveillance, and that's all I'm going to say, said Jim Peters, spokesman
for the FAA's eastern region. 

A variety of workers -- including baggage handlers, mechanics, pilots, and
service workers cleaning cabins, stocking food and topping off fuel tanks --
have routine access to the planes. 

US Airways is conducting an internal investigation, spokesman David
Castelveter said. He declined further comment, but said the company would
prosecute any suspects. 

Willful damage on an aircraft carries a maximum jail term of 20 years, the
FBI said. 

Castelveter said the holes have been repaired and all three planes have
returned to service. 

"These incidents did not and do not affect the airworthiness of aircraft,"
he added. 

US Airways, the nation's seventh largest airline, filed bankruptcy for the
second time in two years on Sept. 12, after employees refused to accept $800
million a year in wage and benefit cuts. 

The airline asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen S. Mitchell to impose
emergency cuts in labor costs so it could preserve enough cash to survive
until next spring. 

US Airways' four major unions fought the company's request for labor relief
in bankruptcy court. They said the severe wage cuts would devastate the
living standards of company workers. 

Frank Schifano, president of International Association of Machinists and
Aerospace Workers' Local 1976 in Pittsburgh, said he had no knowledge of any
aircraft damage. 

"We do not condone any type of deliberate damage to aircraft," Schifano
said. 

"We are committed to aviation safety," said Joseph Tiberi, a spokesman for
IAM's international union. 

Teddy Xidas, president of Association of Flight Attendants Local 40 in
Pittsburgh, said she did not believe the planes were damaged by company
workers. She also said she believed that US Airways' aircraft were safe. 

"I don't think this should scare customers," Xidas said. "I know it doesn't
scare flight attendants."


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