The Private World of Aircraft Maintenance

On April 9 there were 1,100 cancellations by American Airlines and 900 more the following day. Over 250,000 passengers were stranded as the carrier rushed to make adjustments to "wiring bundles" on its fleet of 300 MD-80s. Similar maintenance problems, never before publicly disclosed, hit several other major carriers, affecting tens of thousands of passengers. 

It started in early March with the much-publicized Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) record fine of $10.2 million against consumer- friendly Southwest Airlines (SWA). The public was given its first look inside the private world of aircraft maintenance and it wasn’t pretty. For example, contrary to its popular image, Southwest deliberately avoided safety checks and knowingly flew an estimated 145,000 passengers on uninspected aircraft. Six of these aircraft were subsequently discovered to have cracks very similar to those that led to a catastrophic accident over Hawaii in 1988.  

In that memorable incident, the cabin top of a B-737 fuselage blew off at 24,000 feet. One flight attendant was ejected, leaving 94 other strapped-in passengers and crew gasping for oxygen. Incredibly, the crippled Aloha Airline aircraft landed safely with only that one tragic fatality. This frightening example is still recalled by safety experts because it immediately increased awareness of the deadly consequences of corrosion and metal fatigue. 

New and effective industry standards for regular inspection of every individual part and each area of the fuselage became mandatory requirements. These are extremely critical tasks dutifully observed by all employees anywhere near an aircraft. They have to. There are some 25,000 take offs and landings each day in the United States carrying around 1.6 million passengers. 

Most of us have seen ground crews and pilots doing these "walk around" visual observations looking for defects after each "touch down." These are in addition to closer inspections performed by trained mechanics with sophisticated instruments during regularly scheduled maintenance checks. 

It was shocking, therefore, when it was recently reported that top FAA officials knew of lapses in SWA inspections and yet still gave the carrier a free ride. Worse, it was learned safety-conscious FAA inspectors were overruled when they reported violations. In testimony this April before Congress, Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) Calvin L. Scovel III, who has oversight over the FAA, admitted that FAA superiors "developed an overly collaborative relationship" with carriers that "appears to allow, rather than mitigate, recurring safety violations." 

It was an observation echoed by Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. There was a "cozy relationship between the FAA and airlines and a lack of an enforcement mind-set," said Obestar. These disclosures prompted a full- scale investigation of other U.S. air carriers. At the end of April, American Airlines repaired wiring on 145 aircraft and United Airlines grounded its total fleet of B-777s to repair fire suppression devices. 

Predictably, neither the FAA nor the carriers considered any of the infractions very serious. There is disagreement on this point, but even independent safety experts were quick to reassure us that the skies remain the safest than at any time in history. 

However, it is more difficult to dismiss serious weaknesses in the FAA’s oversight processes and of the industry’s current deteriorating level of aircraft maintenance. Both were revealed as grossly inadequate. This is not big news among keen airline observers. Speculation had been flying around for a long time that the FAA was tailing behind domestic airlines it was pledged to oversee. Lack of FAA oversight became particularly glaring in the last several years when most of the majors began dismantling their time-tested, high-quality maintenance programs. 

Big changes occurred with the accelerated outsourcing of "in house" maintenance. The latest debacles are evidence that most of the changes are not good. For example, U.S. airlines historically required an FAA-certified Aircraft & Powerplant (A&P) license before anyone touched an aircraft. All repair work was done by these qualified mechanics, the overwhelming majority represented by a labor union. When a supervisor pressured a mechanic to speed up or to rush a job, a complaint to the union flight-safety representative would quickly squash the uncomfortable situation. 

Many national safety experts recognize that the excellent safety record of U.S. carriers resulted from this checks-and-balances relationship. Who now performs this important safety function? U.S. airlines are estimated to contract out 53 percent of their maintenance, up from 37 percent in 1996. The industry doesn’t pretend this is being done to advance safety, but rather to save money. 

Of course, the question is raised: does cutting costs also lead to taking shortcuts and risks that reduce safety? No, at least according to the FAA. Yes, current government policy allows FAA-licensed maintenance operators to outsource work to unlic- ensed facilities and, yes, unlicensed shops legally operate without prior FAA verification of the quality of their work. Ultimately, however, the FAA is satisfied as long as a licensed mechanic approves the work of an unspecified number of others who do not possess the coveted A&P license. 

Thus, in our outsourcing world, licensed mechanics are signing off on work they do not personally perform. It is improbable to assume they observe each and every aspect of the operation performed by these unlicensed workers.

In any case, the FAA has no way to monitor this work because it doesn’t know the location or number of unlicensed shops operating through agreements with the major carriers. This major crack in the system was revealed several years ago but is only now getting the attention it deserves. 

A 2005 Department of Transportation IG report indicated that the FAA never inspected approximately 1,400 unlicensed repair facilities, including 104 outside the U.S. The same report stated that a mere 71 FAA inspectors oversee 698 certified facilities outside the U.S. Consumer- writes that even licensed facilities "are sometimes found to hire unskilled and untrained employees." 

Even more worrisome, when asked how U.S. carriers follow up to ensure the outsourced work has been done properly by their vendors, the Department of Transportation IG responded that carriers "rely mostly on telephone calls to the repair shops with which they’ve contracted." Now that’s reassuring. 

Numerous warnings in the last few years about the dangers of massively outsourcing maintenance to low-cost facilities have mostly been discounted by the FAA as nothing more than jet blast from disgruntled unions and furloughed mechanics. Recent Congressional sworn testimony proves otherwise as Rep. Obestar stated his concern about outsourced repair facilities not always being certified. Maintenance is "not being done with the same oversight," said Obestar. "What we have is the potential of major failure." 

Another constant criticism in the last few years from conscientious inspectors within the FAA is that the agency has reduced "hands on" inspections of low-bid contractors. 

Marion Blakey, head of the FAA, ridiculed these objections in a public television "NewsHour" interview (June 9, 2005): "It is a very old-fashioned approach to looking at safety oversight because in fact these days it’s not about standing over someone’s shoulder in the middle of the night and seeing if they’re turning the wrench in the right direction." 

The FAA instead relies on overseeing computer module maintenance systems. Again, according to, it is an "electronic surveillance system, dubbed the Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS), that relies less on inspection and more on statistical trends." 

Supporters claim this is a more modern approach to technological advances in the industry. What it means in practice is that Blakey deflects criticisms by repeating the statistical trend that "no major airline incident has occurred since November 2001." 

Veteran FAA employees argue that primarily relying on examinations of computer grids is too distant from the necessary grunt inspection work that occurs on the ground where actual maintenance occurs. They also claim the FAA system places far too must trust in carriers and vendors who are expected to self-monitor their compliance, based on the supposedly idyllic computer program outline. 

In today’s political atmosphere where U.S. government policy places all trust in the deregulated market, it’s no surprise the FAA confidently delegates authority of critical safety inspection to powerful carriers. Nonetheless, for non-believers in the all-knowing, beneficent corporate market, this is a huge concern. The House Committee on Transportation’s investigation into airline safety confirmed these doubts. The end result is that a very troubling picture emerges of the FAA being far too cozy with domestic airlines it is pledged to monitor. 


Carl Finamore is a former president of Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW.