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FAA Wants Airlines to Inspect Boeing 757 Tails

October 25, 2011

By ANDY PASZTOR

U.S. regulators want airlines to check for hazardous corrosion on movable tail parts on hundreds of Boeing 757 jets that could result in pilots losing control of aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration proposed on Monday a mandatory safety directive covering devices that control tail sections, called horizontal stabilizers, that help raise and lower the noses of more than 700 Boeing 757s flown by U.S. carriers. Eventually, the checks are expected to apply to hundreds of additional Boeing 757s operated by overseas airlines.

A Boeing Co. spokeswoman said it supported the proposal, which builds on its nonbinding safety recommendations that carriers regularly inspect and lubricate the affected parts. She said that Boeing clarified those recommendations last year. An FAA spokeswoman declined to comment.

The move comes nearly 11 years after a maintenance lapse helped cause a similar device to fail on the tail of an Alaska Airlines McDonnell Douglas MD-83 off the Southern California coast, rendering the plane uncontrollable and sending it into a dive that killed all 88 people aboard. Investigators eventually determined that faulty aircraft design, slipshod maintenance and inadequate federal oversight all contributed to the high-profile accident.

In 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board called on Boeing and other aircraft makers to launch a “systematic engineering review” to prevent such potentially catastrophic failures of flight controls on thousands of jetliners.

According to the FAA, part of the 757’s horizontal stabilizer-control system is similar to a screw-style mechanism that failed on the Alaska jet, and may be subject to similar types of failures.

Since that accident, Chicago-based Boeing’s design reviews and safety analyses found “extensive corrosion” on one 757 that “could lead to loss of control of the horizontal stabilizer and consequent loss of control of the airplane,” according to the FAA.

The agency’s proposal is expected to be released for comment Tuesday, though it could take months to become final.

The proposal is unusual because it generally calls for tougher inspection standards and, in some cases, appears to envision tighter compliance deadlines than those previously issued by Boeing to detect and replace suspect parts. In January 2010, Boeing issued various updated service bulletins calling for repeated inspections to look for worn, cracked, corroded or loose-fitting parts, called ballscrews, on certain 757 jetliners.

Such maintenance bulletins aren’t binding on carriers, but airlines typically follow the advice of manufacturers unless the FAA or other regulators issue alternate directives.

As part of its proposed directive, the FAA’s criteria for immediate replacement of parts is twice as stringent as the latest standard Boeing issued last year. The FAA also wants airlines to ensure that replacement parts are new or have been properly overhauled, and the agency envisions initial inspections of some planes within six months of the final rule.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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