HONOLULU (KHON2) — Cargo airline Transair’s jets are grounded, after a lengthy FAA investigation of maintenance and safety practices that began months before one of its planes crashed into the ocean off Oahu.
Always Investigating found out its pilots were growing increasingly worried about practices ahead of the crash.
The FAA’s grounding of Transair’s remaining Boeing 737-200 comes after years of mounting fines and penalties, and what KHON2 learned was a growing chorus of internal complaints. The company also operates prop planes under a separate corporate entity with the same owners, and those have not been grounded.
The Federal Aviation Administration says effective midnight Thursday, Rhoades Aviation — which operates Transair — cannot fly or conduct maintenance inspections until it complies with FAA regulations.
The FAA said: “The agency’s decision is separate from the ongoing investigation into the July 2 accident” in which pilots ditched a Boeing 737-200 into the ocean shortly after takeoff from Honolulu. Both pilots were injured and were rescued at sea.
Sources tell us FAA inspectors were digging in especially closely on a routine evaluation that started last year.
“It usually takes about two to three weeks, and they’ve been there the entire time. They’re still there,” said an insider whose identity is being protected for fear of retribution but whose assertions check out with what the FAA itself acknowledged.
“The FAA began investigating the maintenance and safety practices of Rhoades Aviation last fall,” the agency said. “On June 13, the FAA notified Rhoades Aviation that the agency intended to rescind the authority for the airline to conduct maintenance inspections due to deficiencies identified during the investigation. The company was given 30 days under administrative process to ask the FAA to reconsider, which it did not do.”
It was during that 30-day window that the plane went down.
“The aircraft in question that crashed,” the insider told KHON2. “That was the oldest plane in the fleet. It was about ready to retire. The engines were so old and tired and weak and worn out that it was not meeting the minimum performance requirements as per the certificate of airworthiness from the FAA and from the manufacturer.”
Former Transair pilot Jim Atkinson said he feared the worst.
“I remember saying to myself, they’re going to put one of the drink,” Atkinson said. “They did. Fortunately, it was in the drink, and not into somebody’s house. But I kind of knew this was going to happen. I felt at my bones when I left there. There was no improvement. If anything had gotten worse.”
As Always Investigating first reported, the airline’s two airplane ownership entities had racked up hundreds of thousands in fines and penalties over the years for everything from maintenance to flight operations, records and reporting, even drug testing violations.
“Why were they simply paying affordable fines? Something that was acceptable to them?” Atkinson said. “They should have simply had their certificate revoked, period. Just, ‘you’re not fit for this anymore. We’re taking it away.'”
The FAA’s action last night does that at least temporarily for the jet portion of the fleet.
“Last night, the FAA notified Rhoades Aviation that the agency was moving forward with the plans to remove its authority to conduct maintenance inspections effective midnight local time Thursday in Hawaii,” the FAA said. “The agency also informed the company that without an inspection authorization, the carrier would not be able to operate legally.
“What really should happen at this point, if you take into account how egregious their errors have been, and how they have neglected air safety, the company should be permanently shut down,” Atkinson said.
Transair is a carrier of mail interisland for the U.S. Postal Service. The postal service told us previously there was no U.S. mail on the downed jet. The FAA says as of last night’s grounding, the company had one operational Boeing 737-200.
The postal service told KHON2 in a statement today: The FAA action did not affect the distribution of mail today, as Transair transported mail to Kahului and Hilo this morning, on a prop plane instead of a jet. Mail to all other Hawaii destinations is transported by other contractors. While its jets are grounded, Transair will continue to transport mail via its prop planes from Honolulu to Kahului and Hilo every night and from those two neighbor island cities back to Honolulu every afternoon.”
The FAA explained: “A sister company, Trans Executive Airlines of Hawaii, Inc., operates smaller turbo prop planes (Short 360s). The FAA action doesn’t apply to Trans Executive Airlines.”
We reached out Transair for response, and they did not comment as of the publication of this story.