Airline, airline on the wall, who's the safest of them all?

Offshore maintenance an issue for U.S. airlines yet again

4 min read

My colleague Bob Charette wrote last month about some problems Lufthansa had been having reservation systems. Not to minimize the situation, but when it comes to airlines, there are problems and then there are problems. When a reservation system is down, "Boarding passes were having to be filled out by hand, and ground crews have had to check all luggage manually." NPR reported on Tuesday about some rather more horrifying airline problems — problems with U.S. airplanes after they've been serviced at offshore maintenance facilities.

The FAA requires that mechanics fix the planes according to the airline manuals — whether they're in the U.S. or overseas. But the mechanics at Aeroman say their supervisors often say that takes too much time. One mechanic says that just a few days earlier, he and his colleagues were replacing a kind of rivet, commonly called a Hi-Lok, along the fuselage. The airline's manual said they should use a "shear" Hi-Lok that's carefully engineered to withstand a specific amount of pressure on a specific part of the plane. But the mechanic says Aeroman didn't have the right Hi-Loks on hand, so the supervisor told them to use "tension" Hi-Loks that weren't approved for that repair. The mechanic says he resisted, because the wrong Hi-Loks "would cause, actually, a crack in the fuselage when there is turbulence." When the supervisor pressured him to use the incorrect part anyway, "I told him no, because the manual does not allow me to do that," he says. But the supervisor ordered him "to go ahead and install it, because we were in a hurry to turn around the airplane."

It's not like it's a new problem or one that no one has noticed before. (In fact, Spectrum had a special report on it in 1986(!); senior editor Tekla Perry worked on it back then and blogged last year about it here.)

In February 2008, the Teamsters Union and an organization called the Business Travel Coalition co-sponsored a national summit on aircraft maintenance outsourcing. The issue then was the same as now: the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration inspects overseas maintenance facilities, but do they inspect them often and well enough? Back in July 2007, the FAA itself expressed the same concerns about "shoddy work and counterfeit parts":

No one seems more worried than some of the FAA'S 3,000 inspectors themselves. They are sounding the alarm that foreign maintenance shops receive inadequate oversight and have become a risk for shoddy work and counterfeit parts. In interviews and in recent congressional testimony, inspectors and their union representatives say they are able to scrutinize thoroughly the work of only a handful of the 698 overseas maintenance contractors licensed by the FAA. These facilities are sometimes found to hire unskilled and untrained employees. Inspectors, moreover, don't have any ability to oversee an unknown number of obscure maintenance shops that lack FAA certification.

and a few months later Congress was asked to think about the possibility that a "terrorist will enter an overseas repair shop, plant a bomb in an airplane cavity."

NPR also reported, in a separate story, that one U.S. carrier, American Airlines, continues to do its own maintenance, in the United States, and hopes to keep its repair center, which is in Tulsa, Okla., open with contracts from other U.S. airlines as well. In order to keep paying salaries four times higher than those in Mexico and South America, American has cut the time for a major overhaul in half, despite using only half as many workers per overhaul as it used to.

Unfortunately, it's not as if repairs at domestic maintenance facilities are problem-free. NPR reported, for example, that "American confirmed that it is under investigation for using fasteners not approved by the FAA in the bulkheads of 11 of its MD-80 aircraft." Ironically, that sounds a bit like the Aeroman horror story. But at least Tulsa is in the FAA's backyard, under U.S. legal jurisdiction, with workers that speak and read English as their native language. And hopefully, a culture of getting it done right instead of getting it done fast.

And company culture, in my opinion, counts for a lot. I remember my own experience at JFK airport back in the early 1980s. My first day working for my cousin, a licensed customhouse broker, I had to pick up a shipment of garment samples at Pan Am for a client. I came back to the office looking glum; my cousin asked me what was wrong. I told him what a dump the Pan Am freight warehouse was, how the lighting was bad and nothing was stored where it should be and there were fast-food wrappers and other trash all over the floors and the workers just didn't seem to give a damn about anything. It was late in the day. He glanced at the clock, said "C'mon," and we jumped into his car.

In a few minutes we pulled into the Lufthansa warehouse and I instantly saw why. It was clean and brightly lit and the people behind the counter all wore crisp white shirts and there was an electronic numbering system telling the waiting truckers who was next. My cousin said hello to Ingrid and explained that I was new and he just wanted to show me a well-run operation. She smiled and buzzed us through.

The warehouse was as clean and well-lit as the office and the workers wore, as the saying goes, their professional pride on their uniformed sleeves. I understood my cousin's point: Airlines are not the same. Lufthansa was a first-rate operation and Pan Am, the commercial airline industry's first major carrier, wasn't long for this world. A few years later, not long before Pan Am folded,

I was in its freight warehouse again one Saturday looking for a shipment of live Ecuadorian crabs that a client had had imported the night before. As we wandered aimlessly looking for a container that was not where it was supposed to be, I heard a drip, drip, drip nearby. I could smell something foul and called the Pan Am guy over. It wasn't my freight, but it was also lost — frozen chickens shipped a week earlier that had finally unfrozen.

The airlines that are penny wise and pound foolish today when it comes to maintenance will surely pay the same price that Pan Am did. Hopefully nothing worse than chicken blood will be shed along the way.

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