FAA Proposes $2.5 Million Penalty Against American Eagle Over Baggage Errors

Federal regulators are proposing a penalty of nearly $2.5 million against a sister carrier of American Airlines for not making sure crews had accurate information about the weight of baggage on dozens of flights.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced the penalty Monday against AMR Corp.'s American Eagle.

Incorrect takeoff weights are considered a safety hazard if pilots rely on faulty information when determining the right speed for takeoff and landing.

The FAA charged that Eagle operated at least 39 flights after being told of the problem.

American Eagle spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said company officials disputed the penalties "and believe they are excessive and inappropriate."

Huguely said most of the discrepancies cited by the FAA involved baggage crews not recording the addition of late bags or valet bags. She said the information was accurately recorded in the airline's electronic system used for all flight calculations, and that most airlines with electronic systems don't even keep the paper records created by baggage handlers.

The FAA says there were discrepancies between the numbers generated by the automated system and the manual one recorded by baggage handlers. In several cases, the difference was more than 600 pounds though in many it was less than 100 pounds. Eagle says in effect that the manual records don't matter because flight calculations use the electronic system, which it says is accurate.

The airline has spent $1 million on the electronic system to track cargo weight and balance and is spending another $1.5 million to improve it, Huguely said.

Eagle, which often connects passengers from secondary airports to main hub airports served by American Airlines, has 30 days to respond to the FAA.

The FAA said that between January and October 2008, Eagle operated at least 154 flights in which baggage weight listed on cargo records differed from data entered into an automated system for tracking and balancing weight.

The agency said that Eagle eventually corrected the situation by changing its operating manual to ensure that proper weight and balance information is confirmed.

Weight and balance of cargo is important for all planes but is considered a more significant issue for the kinds of smaller jets typically operated by Eagle and other regional carriers because they are lighter "and every pound becomes important," said FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford.

"When you get on an airplane, they are strategically locating baggage and other cargo in the hold so the plane remains balanced," he said. Cargo is often secured inside the hold by containers or nets to prevent it from shifting during flight, which would make it harder to control the plane.

Penalties such as the one against Eagle are often negotiated down by the airline and the FAA.

Southwest Airlines Co. agreed last year to pay $7.5 million for operating planes that had not undergone required inspections for fuselage cracks. The FAA originally proposed a $10.2 million fine, the largest ever against a U.S. carrier.

The proposed penalty against Eagle is the latest in a series of actions the FAA has taken against U.S. airlines for alleged safety violations.

Southwest grounded more than 40 planes last year after inspectors found repairs were done with unapproved parts. In 2008, the FAA ordered American Airlines to pay a $7.1 million penalty for using jets without first fixing problems with their autopilot systems. Separately, American and other airlines grounded hundreds of aircraft over concerns that wiring in the wheel wells could short out and cause fires.

"The traveling public has to be confident that airlines are following important safety rules," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Monday. "When they are not operating to the highest levels of safety, they are subject to stiff fines."