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Inquiry looking at Alaska maintenance

The MD-80 has been a workhorse of Alaska Airlines' fleet, taking the carrier's passengers up and down the West Coast for years. It also has been at the center of a criminal investigation into Alaska Airlines maintenance and a long-running controversy over fumes in the passenger cabin.

John Liotine, an Alaska lead mechanic in Oakland, Calif., set the criminal investigation into motion in October 1998 when he contacted an inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Records released under the Freedom of Information Act last year showed that Liotine complained that an Alaska supervisor filled out a post-maintenance checklist on an MD-80 even though he wasn't qualified to do so.

Alaska repairs its 38 MD-80s at the Oakland maintenance facility.

As a result of that initial contact by Liotine:

A criminal investigation has been under way involving a federal grand jury in San Francisco, the FBI, the U.S. Transportation Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office. No charges have been filed in the case.

The FAA has recommended that the mechanic's licenses of three Alaska supervisors in Oakland be revoked for making false entries on records.

The FAA also proposed a $44,000 fine against Alaska. An agency inspector in Oakland originally proposed an $8.7-million fine. But FAA lawyers determined that top Alaska executives weren't involved, so the size of the proposed fine was reduced.

The investigation, which has been the subject of news reports for months, focuses on two MD-80s, including one in which a manager allegedly released a plane for service with its throttle set improperly.

An FAA inspector in Oakland concluded that the two MD-80 jets were flown 844 times from Oct. 7, 1998, through Jan. 19, 1999, "in an unairworthy condition" because portions of records that document maintenance hadn't been filled out.

Alaska has said that the alleged violations involved only record-keeping and that the jets were safe to fly.

What first caused Liotine to act was the signing of a checklist by a manager he believed was unqualified.

"A significant driving force in this endeavor has been the downward trend among the ranks of maintenance personnel and this management team with respect to actual work experience in the performance of the duties entrusted to them," Liotine wrote in a statement to the FAA.

He also wrote that corrective action in the company for these problems was lacking, as was "interest by our management to honestly deal with these causes."

The MD-80 also has been the source of dozens of complaints about air quality in the cabin. For a decade, Alaska flight attendants have blamed a range of maladies _ headaches, goiters, tremors and lost mental abilities _ on what they believe are toxic fumes.

About three-quarters of the hundreds of complaints focus on the MD-80. The airline also flies Boeing 737s.

Federal and company investigations have yet to pinpoint a source of the problems.

Alaska Airlines

Has its roots in a three-seat shuttle service begun in 1932 between Anchorage and Bristol Bay, Alaska. The service merged with Star Air Service in 1934 and, after several more mergers, adopted the name Alaska Airlines. With deregulation in 1979, Alaska began expanding throughout the West Coast and within a decade had tripled in size.

Alaska now carries more than 12-million customers per year, and its route system serves more than 40 cities in Alaska, Canada, Mexico and five Western states. Alaska says its fleet of 88 Boeing jets is the youngest among all major airlines.

Alaska planes are distinctive for the image of an Eskimo painted on their tails.