While the aviation industry is currently awaiting implementation of brand new Transportation Security Administration security rules to strengthen domestic and foreign aircraft repair stations against terrorist threats, safety at these maintenance facilities is the subject of an investigation conducted by National Public Radio (NPR).
NPR recently published a three-part series which has energized an ongoing debate about the outsourcing of airline maintenance to repair shops overseas. To many frequent fliers, this is news. This growing cost-cutting approach, however, has been at the forefront of controversy for a few years.
Drowning from financial pressures and suffering from a hard hit economic crisis starting in the months after 9/11, the aviation industry scrambled to find ways to cut costs in order to stay afloat. Airlines began to increase profits by reducing flight volume and implementing other passenger amenity changes that dismayed many travelers. Disgruntled travelers, however, have been largely unaware of another cost-cutting approach that an increasing amount of airlines have adopted: the global outsourcing of aircraft maintenance.
The airline industry says outsourcing is one of the most effective ways to cut costs. It has also become popular, as less and less airlines send their planes to their own local repair shops and instead opt for less expensive private maintenance.
According to a 2008 audit conducted by the Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), nine major air carriers, AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, America West Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines, outsourced 71 percent of their heavy airframe maintenance checks in 2007. Almost 27 percent of these heavy airframe repairs were outsourced to repair shops overseas. Roughly 20 percent of these repair shops are in developing countries. Therefore, about one in every five planes is being sent to developing countries such as Africa, Asia and South America, to be overhauled and repaired.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires airlines to perform regular maintenance on their aircraft at least once every two years, which can be quite costly. On average, a union mechanic working in the U.S. will make about $100 per hour. An airline can cut that cost in half if they send their plane to a non-union mechanic in the U.S. If the airline sends their aircraft to a developing country, their savings triple. Maintenance has quite simply become one of the biggest ways air carriers can cut costs because of the much cheaper labor rates overseas.
As maintenance outsourcing continues to become more prevalent, critics of the outsourcing trend have become increasingly more vocal about their worries that although outsourcing does indeed slash costs, it is doing so at the potentially high price of safety.
Outsourcing Raises Serious Safety Questions
The problem with outsourcing, particularly to maintenance and repair shops located overseas, is that these shops are difficult to monitor. In addition to the 4,227 domestic repair shops located in the U.S., there are roughly 700 FAA approved foreign repair shops in 70 countries. The FAA is required to inspect and monitor all of these on a regular basis through a system of checks and balances. According to the DOT's Inspector General, this system is flawed.
The OIG report, Air Carriers' Outsourcing of Aircraft Maintenance, Federal Aviation Administration Report Number: AV-2008-090, issued on September 30, 2008, became a scathing review of the FAA's role, or lack thereof, in the inspection and supervision of many foreign aircraft maintenance shops, which are supposed to maintain comparable safety standards to the U.S. counterparts.
The Inspector General reported that the FAA and industry inspectors have not been properly monitoring aircraft maintenance work. According to the report, "while the FAA has begun moving its safety oversight toward a risk-based system, it still relies too heavily on air carriers' oversight procedures, which are not always sufficient."
Specifically, the OIG determined that the "FAA did not (1) have an adequate system for determining how much and where the most critical maintenance occurs, (2) have a specific policy governing when certificate management inspectors should visit repair stations performing substantial maintenance, (3) require inspectors to validate that repair stations have corrected deficiencies identified in air carrier audits, and (4) have adequate controls to ensure that inspectors document inspection findings in the national database and review related findings by other inspectors. As a result, the FAA could not effectively target its inspection resources to those repair stations providing the highest volume of repairs, which caused deficiencies at repair stations to go undetected or reoccur and prevented inspectors from obtaining sufficient data to perform comprehensive risk assessments."
Close Calls Don't Inspire Confidence
One foreign shop, in particular, became the focus of NPR's report on the industry's growing trend of outsourcing maintenance. That particular facility is Aeroman repair station in El Salvador which made a mistake that could have potentially been catastrophic. In January 2009, a US Airways jet traveling from Omaha to Phoenix was forced to land in Denver after the pressure seal around the main cabin door started to fail. It was later discovered that the mechanics at Aeroman had installed an important door component backwards.
In another case at Aeroman, a mechanic crossed the wires connecting the gauges to a plane's engines, a potentially catastrophic mistake that was thankfully caught by an airline employee before the plane left with passengers. According to records obtained by NPR, this was not the first instance of problems with wire connectors. In late September of 2009, US Airways discovered another wire mix-up caused by mechanics at Aeroman. Thankfully these mishaps were caught, and no one was hurt.
NPR also interviewed mechanics at the Aeroman repair shop who declared their own concerns regarding safety there. According to the mechanics, there is often a great deal of pressure to repair planes quickly, even if safety is sacrificed. They confessed that some employees stored glues at temperatures different than those required by law, which means that the glues could fail, potentially causing parts of the airplane to quite literally fall apart.
When asked about FAA inspections, the mechanics revealed that the inspections are pre-announced so management has time to prepare for the inspection and the FAA inspectors find nothing wrong. NPR reported that the mechanics were paid between $5,000 and $10,000 per year, and some did not speak English, making the reading of the aircraft repair manual impossible.
Still, aviation officials maintain that outsourcing maintenance is safe and that the Aeroman repair shop in El Salvador is one of the best run foreign repair shops in the world. The vice president in charge of maintenance at US Airways stated that he was "impressed with the facility, having been to a number of heavy-maintenance providers here in the U.S."
Also, officials argue, there hasn't actually been an accident due to a maintenance mishap since 2003, and that the accident in 2003 was caused by a mistake made in an American repair shop. Many people fear, however, that it might take a catastrophic accident to wake the industry up to the dangers of outsourcing.
Is having our planes fixed overseas safe? Or are we taking too big of a risk? Many readers, especially those that frequently board an airliner, might find themselves asking the same question: Should we be worried?
So, Should We Be Worried?
The naysayers argue that our safety record proves we have very good maintenance. The FAA, also, assures the public that there is nothing to worry about. Industry analysts say that there is no reason for concern. Kevin Michaels, director of consulting with AeroStrategy said that foreign repair shops are harmless and productive, adding that "over the last 10 years, we've seen a significant growth." And according to the senior Vice President of Air Transport Association, the industry's safety record shows that repair companies overseas do excellent work and that El Salvador's Aeroman is one of the best repair shops in the world.
In other words, according to some, there is absolutely nothing to worry about.
Others disagree and argue, yes, we should most definitely be worried. The Inspector General of the Department of Transportation in particular has warned for the past six years that the monitoring of these foreign stations is far below standard, declaring that the "FAA still does not have comprehensive data on how much and where outsourced maintenance is performed." The Inspector General added that "problems existed, such as untrained mechanics, lack of required tools and unsafe storage of aircraft parts."
And what about the stellar safety record? One official said "The absence of an accident doesn't mean you're safe. We should be monitoring and doing our job before there's an accident, not after."
Legislators are also worried. Senator Clair McCaskill (D-MO) has been pushing legislation in Congress that would require tougher standards on foreign repair shops and their oversight. "When you have a situation like this, where you're going to El Salvador because it's going to be a lot cheaper, and the company in El Salvador is going to make a lot more money if they can promise the planes out more quickly, then that is a dangerous stew that we are stirring," McCaskill said.
USDOT OIG Audit: Air Carriers' Outsourcing of Aircraft Maintenance, Federal Aviation Administration Report Number: AV-2008-090, Issued on September 30, 2008.