If your engine is low on oil, you pour some in. Maybe even get an oil change.
If your engine is low on oil again the next day, you'd notice. Right?
What if it were an aircraft engine, with a 14.4 quart capacity?And you poured two quarts of oil in after every flight or two?
"Corporate Air operated the aircraft on at least 80 flights in spite of continued evidence of excessive oil consumption by the right engine," the FAA announced in an Oct. 12. statement.
A major airline that behaved like this would risk having all its planes grounded, but this small charter and air taxi service out of Billings, Mont., faces only a fine. Flying four kinds of turboprops on chartered hops between nine northwestern states, Corporate Air has carved itself a comfortable niche market.
Or at least it was comfortable until the FAA told them that they'd have to pay almost half a million dollars for ongoing neglect of their aircraft.
Commercial airlines and charter companies are all strictly regulated, and maintenance is explicitly spelled out in several of those regulations. “The safety of the passengers and crew must be the top priority for any operator,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in the statement. “All operators must comply with maintenance requirements.”
After every flight, a plane needs to be checked out. If anything is wrong – like, say, an engine needing two quarts of oil – you need to record that you noticed the issue, go through an approved maintenance procedure, and then sign off that you've done it.
The Corporate Air crew faithfully documented the oil-thirsty engine, but failed on step two: actually fixing it, the FAA says.
The problem first appeared on Aug. 13, 2009, when the postflight inspection noticed that the right engine of N122GL, a 19-seater Beech 1900C turboprop plane, needed two quarts of oil.
Two days later, it needed another two. "The addition of oil [just two days later] showed that N122GL was experiencing oil consumption in excess" of regulation limits, wrote FAA attorney David Shayne in his letter to Corporate Air's vice president.
Once that excessive oil consumption was noticed, "Corporate Air failed to conduct monitoring and corrections procedures," Mr. Shayne alleged.
Another eight flights later, on Aug. 24, the maintenance staff finally worked on the engine, but that didn't solve the problem. Over the next month, the oil was replaced 23 more times without the problem ever actually being solved, according to the FAA.
"Between August 15 and September 21, 2009, Corporate Air operated N122GL on at least 80 separate flights while N122GL continued to experience excessive oil consumption," the FAA alleges.
In all, Corporate Air violated eight different sections of federal aviation regulations.
“Our aviation safety rules are designed to protect the flying public,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We expect airlines to comply with these rules and will take enforcement action when they do not.”
Each time the plane flew without proper maintenance, Corporate Air risked another $11,000 fine.
"At least 80 separate flights" at $11K apiece runs to "at least" $880,000. So why is the FAA asking for $455,175 – just over half the possible fine?
"We have sanction guidance, and this requires us to take into account mitigating and aggravating factors," said FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer. "It was a complicated calculation."
Corporate Air had 30 days after receiving the FAA’s letter to respond to the agency. That window has now closed. When asked what their response had been, Corporate Air declined to answer, but issued a press release, saying, "While Corporate Air respectfully disagrees with the FAA's allegations ... Corporate Air will be meeting with the FAA to discuss this matter."