Qbicle seat warmer
There goes a piece of local history
Justifying its emergency order to shut down L.A.B. Flying Service Inc., the Federal Aviation Administration said the airline "cannot be trusted" to meet its regulations.
"In view of its maintenance-related accident record and violation history, the deplorable condition of all of LAB's aircraft when inspected in June 2008 clearly demonstrates that LAB is unable or unwilling to conform to regulatory requirements - particularly those pertaining to the maintenance of aircraft," wrote Howard Martin Jr., FAA attorney for Alaska, in the emergency revocation of L.A.B.'s operating certificate, which was served Thursday.
Emergency revocation of the air carrier certificate is the FAA's most severe enforcement action against domestic airlines.
L.A.B. employees refused repeated requests for comment.
The document lists Lynn Bennett as the vice president, general manager of operations and a director of L.A.B., as well as a pilot and mechanic for the company.
The FAA has served such orders before in Alaska - generally on small charter operations - but for "records issues," wrote Allen Kenitzer, FAA spokesman, in an e-mail.
"This is the first time we had one that focused on their maintenance capability," he wrote.
The company was not involved in a 1989 FAA crackdown on records-keeping, when the agency ordered the emergency revocation of eight small Alaska airlines' certificates.
L.A.B. had been operating a fleet of light planes, mostly single-engine Piper Aircraft planes that seat four to six. The airline was running passenger, mail and cargo services to Southeast communities before the emergency order.
An 'astounding number' of problems
The emergency order lists what it calls an "astounding number" of maintenance problems since 2004, and says L.A.B. knew of problems but "took no effective steps" to correct them.
The airline operated planes many hours past when they were due for inspections, says the order.
The most recent incident was in March. The FAA hand-delivered an emergency order to the airline to ground planes with certain types of engines until they could be inspected. For one of the planes, "LAB did not discover this until five days later, when the PMI (principal maintenance inspector) for LAB convinced the director of maintenance for LAB to actually read it. In the interim, the aircraft had been used for five flights."
The agency has fined L.A.B. repeatedly since 2000, the order says.
The document cites eight incidents in which L.A.B. planes broke in some way while in use. Most recently, in April, the nose gear on a plane retracted, causing the propeller to hit the runway.
It also alleges that an L.A.B. aircraft mechanic made an "intentionally false" entry in a maintenance report in 2007, claiming he had done work he couldn't have done in the time he was there.
Another allegation says L.A.B. mechanics in June couldn't produce a micrometer, which was needed to measure the thickness of brake disks.
"The DM (director of maintenance) claimed to have one, but acknowledged that it was in his tool box in Georgia," said the order.
Aviation inspectors in June found "significant" maintenance problems in all nine of L.A.B.'s planes. The lists included various cracks, loose parts, missing parts, incorrectly installed parts, severely worn parts, oil leaks and frayed seat belts, among other problems.
Reaction to Thursday's action
L.A.B. appealed the action Thursday night, Kenitzer said. The FAA has through Monday to respond. Including appeals, the matter must be resolved within 60 days.
If the emergency order is upheld, L.A.B. will not be able to apply for a new certificate of service for one year.
L.A.B. Flying Service's business is based in Haines and its flight hub is Juneau. It flies to Skagway, Haines, Juneau, Excursion Inlet, Gustavus, Hoonah, Kake, Petersburg, Ketchikan and Craig/Klawock. Layton A. Bennett founded the company in 1956, and it's still a family-run company, according to its Web site.
In 2004, the FAA gave Layton Bennett the Wright Brothers' Master Pilot Award for maintaining safe flight operations over 50 or more consecutive years.
L.A.B. passengers trusted airline
Friday afternoon, Wings of Alaska passengers Mike Curry and Gary Handy were headed to Kake a day later than they had expected. They said L.A.B. had rescheduled their flights for them.
Coincidentally, Handy's son-in-law was an L.A.B. pilot who crashed into a mountain near Haines in 2001. The pilot and his five passengers died.
Handy had never blamed L.A.B. for the crash, he said. To him, it sounded like bad luck in bad weather.
"They said it was pilot malfunction," he said. "I don't believe that. He was flying in the fog. One plane made it out. He didn't."
Curry, an electrician who lives in Juneau, said he frequently flew with L.A.B. for work. Though he knew the airline was closed down, he had never been concerned about the airline's safety.
"You have to assume the pilot wants to survive the trip, too," he said.
But he added that he didn't yet know why L.A.B. had been shut down. "I'll feel better if it turns out we weren't risking our lives all these years," he said.