Alaska Airlines' MD-80 at Center of Probe Before Flight 261 Crash

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

Los Angeles, CA ( - Before Monday night's crash of an Alaska Airline jet off the coast of California with 88 passengers aboard, the airline had been the center of a criminal investigation into its maintenance practices, a newspaper reported on Tuesday.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that records released under the Freedom of Information Act last year show that John Liotine, an Alaska Airlines' lead mechanic in Oakland, CA, complained that an airline supervisor filled out a post-maintenance checklist on an MD-80 even though he was not qualified to do so.

Alaska repairs its 38 MD-80s at the Oakland Maintenance facility. As a result of Liotine's contacting the Federal Aviation Administration, a criminal investigation has been underway involving a federal grand jury in San Francisco, the FBI, the US Transportation Department and the US Attorney's Office.

The Post-Intelligencer reports no charges have been filed in the case. The FAA has recommended that the mechanic's licenses of three Alaska Airlines' supervisors in Oakland be revoked for making false entries on records. The agency also proposed a $44,000 fine against Alaska Airlines.

The investigation focuses on two MD-80s, including one in which a manager allegedly released a plane for service with its throttle set improperly, the paper said. Officials with Alaska Airlines have said that the alleged violations involved only record-keeping and that the jets were safe to fly.

Meanwhile, Flight 261, a Boeing MD-80 series plane, was last serviced on Sunday, according to Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans. The details of the service were not immediately available, he said. On January 1st, the plane received an "A check", a more elaborate service. On January 13th, 1999, it received a "C grade" service, Evans said.

The crew and passengers of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 are presumed dead after quickly losing altitude from 17,000 feet and crashing into the Pacific Ocean. The aircraft is believed submerged on the ocean floor in 600 feet of water.

Shortly before the plane lost radio contact on Monday night off the coast of southern California, the pilot told air traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport that he was having problems with the stabilizer trim that brings the plane into balance, Evans said. The plane, manufactured by McDonnell Douglas' commercial division, which is now part of Boeing, was built in 1992 and powered by two JT8D Pratt & Whitney engines. It had no history of stabilizer problems, Evans said.

Alaska Airlines operates 88 aircraft and is the nation's 10th-largest airline.