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FAA wants to fine American $7.1 million for lapses

The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed $7.1 million in fines against American Airlines for several safety lapses, including allegedly flying planes 58 times without necessary maintenance on autopilot systems.

The proposed fine is a significant penalty by FAA standards. Earlier this year, the agency slapped Dallas-based Southwest Airlines with a $10.2 million fine for a series of inspection lapses; that penalty was the largest in the FAA’s history.

The agency claims that in December 2007, American returned two MD-80 airplanes to service without required maintenance, after pilots had reported equipment problems.

The maintenance, which the FAA says was needed for the autopilot system, was improperly deferred, the agency claims, even after an FAA inspector told the airline the work needed to be completed.

“The FAA believes the large total amount of the fine for these violations is appropriate because American Airlines was aware that appropriate repairs were needed, and instead deferred maintenance,” the agency said in a prepared statement. “The carrier did not follow important safety regulations intended to protect passengers and crew.”

The maintenance lapses resulted in a $4.1 million penalty. The agency said it had previously proposed a $2.7 million fine for lapses in American’s drug and alcohol testing program and for a problem with inspections of the lighting system in emergency exit areas. Another $325,000 penalty has been proposed in another case of a plane flying without a fully functioning autopilot.

American officials said they disagreed with the findings and have asked to meet with the FAA to discuss the fines.

“We believe the proposed penalties are excessive,” the airline said in a prepared statement.

In April, American grounded its entire fleet of MD-80 jets for emergency wiring checks after an FAA audit revealed problems with the inspections. More than 3,000 flights were canceled over a seven-day period.

For months, the FAA has been under fire from Congress for allegedly being too soft on the airlines. Since a Congressional investigation into the agency began earlier this year, the agency has stepped up its scrutiny of the airlines.

Investigators have alleged that the some FAA employees based in Irving were lax when it came to safety issues at Southwest. Inspectors, testifying under federal whistle-blower protection, claimed that their concerns about inspections at the discount airline were ignored by supervisors.

The agency fined the carrier in March after determining that it flew jets that hadn’t been properly inspected for potentially dangerous fuselage cracks.

At the same time, the FAA launched a broad audit of inspection records of every major airline.

TREBOR BANSTETTER, (817) 390-7064