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FAA faulted for handling of maintenance concerns during NWA mechanics strike

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When the strike began
Mike Allen, a 19-year mechanic at Northwest, was among the first to hit the picket line at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when the mechanics went on strike in August 2005.
MPR Photo/Bianca Vazquez Toness

Northwest replaced striking mechanics and sent much of its maintenance work to outside firms. Some strikers alleged Northwest's replacement mechanics were not adequately trained, and often did not perform work correctly or follow proper procedures. 

Early on in the strike, one FAA safety inspector formally complained that the replacement  mechanics' training was inadquate, and cited several examples of errors in aircraft maintenance operations. He argued the public's safety was being put at risk. 

That inspector also charged that FAA superiors did not take this concerns seriously, dismissing them as essentially unfounded.

The inspector's allegations were investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration. U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General -- the OIG, for short -- reviewed the FAA's response.

The OIG concludes an FAA review team did not thoroughly review the inspector's allegations, and appeared to focus on discounting the validity of the complaints.

The OIG and the the FAA inspector were not available for comment Friday. But in a report issued by the agency, the OIG concludes an FAA review team did not thoroughly review the inspector's allegations, and appeared to focus on discounting the validity of the complaints.

The OIG also said the FAA did not ensure that Northwest dealt with concerns raised by the inspector.

The  OIG concludes the inspector did raise several valid concerns. But the OIG report does not address the extent to which they did -- or did not -- present a threat to public safety.

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory says most all of the inspector's concerns had to do with paperwork and procedural issues. She insists safety was never at risk.

"These concerns covered administrative action, which would be mostly office procedures. There were really no significant safety issues involved. So, safety was not compromised at any time," says Cory.

At the time of the dispute, Northwest complained the inspector had acted unprofessionally. The OIG report says Northwest had documented complaints about the inspector going back many years. And the OIG does not dismiss the complaints as baseless. 

Neither the inspector nor representatives of his union could be reached for comment.

Still, Cory says the FAA agrees it can do a better job listening to employees and review complaints and concerns of inspectors.

"We've agreed to review our internal review processes," she says.  

Cory says the FAA believes it did take the inspector's concerns seriously. And the FAA contends it closely monitored Northwest aircraft maintenance around the time of the strike, even pressing Northwest for improvements in mechanic training before the inspector made his complaints.

Eagan-based Northwest airlines echoed Cory's comments about the inspector's complaints focusing on paperwork. The airline says safety was not an issue.