NPR kicked off a two-part series this morning, highlighting the growing trend of outsourced aircraft maintenance. In 2007, airlines sent 71 percent of their “heavy airframe maintenance” to private facilities, compared to 34 percent in 2003, a shift aimed at cutting costs in a difficult travel environment. According to NPR, “If an airline fixes its own planes in the U.S., it spends up to $100 per hour for every union mechanic, including overhead and other expenses, according to industry analysts. The airline spends roughly half as much at an independent, non-union shop in America. And it spends only a third as much in a developing country, such as El Salvador.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that 19 percent of those outsourced maintenance checks are done at foreign facilities, many in those so-called “developing countries.” And as NPR points out, this latter fact makes some people uncomfortable. NPR cites an incident with US Airways this past January, where a pressure seal around a door failed and air began to leak through. A follow-up investigation revealed that a key part had been installed backward, causing the seal malfunction. That part was installed at a facility in El Salvador.
But some think the real problem with outsourced maintenance is the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of these facilities—or, more accurately, lack thereof. All maintenance work is supposed to be supervised by FAA-certified mechanics and checked by inspectors with the repair firm, airline, and the FAA. But “the inspector general at the Department of Transportation has investigated those checks and balances, and has repeatedly warned over the past six years that FAA and industry inspectors are not monitoring the work the way they should.”
In fact, NPR says, a 2008 report from the inspector general’s office concluded that “the FAA does not require airlines to report exactly where they send their aircraft for which kinds of repairs. So, FAA inspectors are not sure which of the roughly 700 foreign repair shops they should inspect.” Worse, “The FAA’s inspectors didn’t even show up at some foreign repair stations to monitor their work for as long as three to five years.”
The FAA told the inspector general it would fix these problems, but so far nothing has been done.
At the same time, the FAA has become more aggressive in punishing maintenance and safety lapses, with hefty fines levied against United, US Airways, Southwest, and American in the past few years. But the FAA has also seen its fair share of controversy and criticism during that time.
So my question to you, readers, is whether or not you feel outsourced aircraft maintenance is safe. If not, is it the FAA’s fault for inadequate oversight? Should airlines be required to conduct maintenance in-house?
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