Thursday, January 22, 2004

Comair, FAA settle $44K suit

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - A hearing in Federal Aviation Administration v. Comair had been scheduled to start this morning in Cincinnati's federal courthouse, but it was canceled after the two sides settled.

The alleged offense? A burnt-out light bulb in a no smoking/fasten seat belt sign.

Which raises the question: Why would the FAA build an inch-thick file, propose a $44,000 fine and spend four years on a burnt-out 77-cent light bulb?

"I'm prepared to respond to your factual questions," said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the FAA's southern regional office. "I'm not an attorney, and I'm not a flight standards person, so I can't respond to that."

Comair settled the case in November, paying $3,000.

According to FAA documents the case began on a Sept. 17, 1999, flight from Long Island to Cincinnati.

An off-duty FAA inspector noticed the no smoking/fasten seat belt sign in the first row wasn't working. She reported it to a flight attendant, who reported it to the pilot. But the pilot did not immediately log the burnt-out light bulb so maintenance crews could replace it.

The burnt-out bulb actually meant the plane was technically "not in an airworthy condition," according to a case summary the FAA provided.

The bulb was replaced two days later. But Comair flew the plane four times with the light out, violating three separate FAA regulations.

In April 2003, FAA announced its proposed fine: $11,000 for each trip, for a total of $44,000.

"It's not simply the fact the light was out, but the follow-up actions required were not taken," Bergen said.

Comair appealed the fine to the Department of Transportation, the agency's parent. A hearing had been scheduled for today, but the two sides settled by Nov. 13.

Comair spokesman Nick Miller wouldn't fault the FAA, saying Comair had committed a "paperwork snafu" by not reporting the bulb outage soon enough.

"I don't want to make light of this. We take maintenance very seriously," he said. "It may to the casual observer seem like it's not a big deal. But the rules have to be followed."

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