The Texas-based airline delayed repairs on two MD-80s - a mid-sized airliner - after problems were reported with their autopilot systems and flew them 58 times in violations of federal regulations, the FAA said.
"The FAA believes the large total amount of the fine for these violations is appropriate because American Airlines was aware that appropriate repairs were needed, and instead deferred maintenance," the agency said in a statement. "In intentionally continuing to fly the aircraft, the carrier did not follow important safety regulations intended to protect passengers and crew."
The largest fine FAA has ever proposed against an airline was $10.2 million against Southwest Airlines in March for flying airplanes without performing mandatory inspections, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said. The FAA and Southwest are still negotiating a final penalty, he said.
While not as high as the fine against Southwest, the proposed $7.1 million penalty against American "is certainly significant," Dorr said.
American released a statement calling the fine "excessive" and saying it intends to contest it.
"We do not agree with the FAA's findings and characterizations of American's action in these cases," the airline said. "In accordance with FAA procedures for handling these matters, we have requested to meet with the FAA after we have had time to thoroughly review their findings, so that we may discuss the issues. Since these matters are ongoing with the FAA, we will not have any further comment at this time."
On Dec. 11 and 12, American delayed maintenance to the autopilot system of one of the MD-80s and flew the airliner eight more times in airspace where planes are allowed to group more closely together, violating FAA regulations, Dorr said. It would have been permissible to continue to fly the plane in less restricted airspace, he said.
An FAA inspector discovered the violations and informed American, but the airline sent the plane on 10 more flights carrying passengers until the problem was finally fixed on Dec. 17, the agency said.
In another incident involving the same plane later that month, the autopilot reportedly disconnected during a landing, but American technicians did not check for the right problem and improperly delayed maintenance again, the FAA said. As a result, the airliner flew 36 more passenger-carrying flights before maintenance crews discovered the problem was really a fault in a radio altimeter, not the autopilot, the agency said.
Also in December, during the busy Christmas travel season, the autopilot on a different American MD-80 disconnected. Though mechanics correctly identified the problem, they improperly delayed maintenance again and the airliner made four flights without a fully functioning autopilot, the FAA said.
The FAA is also seeking fines against American for violating drug and alcohol testing procedures involving several dozen flight attendants and other employees, only one of which was a pilot, Dorr said.
The airline also did not make timely inspections of its emergency lighting systems inside aircraft for several years, the agency said.
American is one of the world's largest airlines, with 60,000 flights a month.