Airlines Do Fixes on the Cheap by Sending Planes Abroad to Unlicensed Mechanics
It’s always a little unnerving to hear that your flight is delayed because of mechanical issues. The most common challenges of commercial flying are not so much risky as they are annoying; mostly, they fall somewhere along an infinite loop of potential customer service fails. But there’s something about knowing your plane is in need of a mechanical fix that can trigger feelings of actual worry, even in fliers not much prone to air anxiety. That’s because mechanical problems raise concerns beyond comfort, cost or convenience, and actually bring up issues of safety. Hence the news that an increasing amount of commercial airplane maintenance is outsourced to unlicensed workers abroad feels like more than just another inconvenience heaped on customers by airlines. It’s one of those bits of knowledge that sits at the back of your brain, ready to pounce each time you fly.
Flying is, by far, still the safest way to travel. You’re statistically more likely to be killed by a shark or—perhaps more darkly—in a car on the way to the airport than in a plane crash. Most of us are aware of this. Yet it’s vaguely unsettling to be informed that “heavy maintenance” repairs—those large-scale fixes that can’t be done onsite by mechanics at domestic airports—are increasingly performed in distant developing countries where’s there’s little oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration or any other body. An NPR investigation found that in airplane fix-it shops across Costa Rica, China, Ethiopia, Argentina, Kenya, El Salvador and Indonesia, among other countries, the mechanics who deconstruct and reassemble planes are, overwhelmingly, not certified by the FAA. The majority also don’t speak fluent English, despite having to rely on technical manuals written in English, as nearly all flight materials are.
Like outsourcing in every other industry, aviation outsourcing comes down to money. After 9/11, when America’s airline industry found itself in financial dire straits, commercial fliers introduced a number of cost-cutting measures. We’re now far too familiar with these practices, most of which remain with us, including scrapping complimentary in-flight meals, charging for checked luggage and raising ticket prices, among other things. Less widely known is the fact that airlines also looked for ways to slash repair costs, a solution that required looking abroad. As the NPR report notes, the cost of having a unionized, FAA-certified mechanic in the U.S. handle large-scale repairs runs airlines somewhere around $100 per hour. Getting the work done in a developing nation such as El Salvador, home to one of the biggest and busiest repair shops, shrinks that figure by two-thirds.
That’s a tremendous reduction in cost, and it explains why outsourcing of airplane maintenance has gained such popularity. In a Vanity Fair piece, "The Disturbing Truth About How Airplanes Are Maintained Today," contributing editor James B. Steele notes there are more than 730 FAA-certified airplane repair shops around the world, and that nearly every major U.S. carrier sends its planes to them. CQ Roll Call, a public policy site, notes that prior to 2001, big fixes were mostly handled by individual airlines here in the U.S. “But by 2011, 44 percent of maintenance dollars were spent on outside contractors, according to the Transportation Department. The agency’s inspector general said that 71 percent of the airframe heavy maintenance for nine major U.S. carriers in 2007 was outsourced, with 27 percent of the work going to foreign repair stations, where labor costs are lower.” Over the last 15 years, the total number of maintenance jobs at American airlines plummeted to 50,000 from 72,000. Steele highlights a key issue among those who fill many of those outsourced jobs:
According to regulations, in order to receive F.A.A. certification as a mechanic, a worker needs to be able to “read, speak, write, and comprehend spoken English.” Most of the mechanics in El Salvador and some other developing countries who take apart the big jets and then put them back together are unable to meet this standard. At Aeroman’s El Salvador facility, only one mechanic out of eight is F.A.A.-certified. At a major overhaul base used by United Airlines in China, the ratio is one F.A.A.-certified mechanic for every 31 non-certified mechanics. In contrast, back when U.S. airlines performed heavy maintenance at their own, domestic facilities, F.A.A.-certified mechanics far outnumbered everyone else. At American Airlines’ mammoth heavy-maintenance facility in Tulsa, certified mechanics outnumber the uncertified four to one. Because heavy maintenance is labor-intensive and offshore labor is cheap, there’s a perception that the work is unskilled. But that’s not true. If something as mundane as the tray of a tray table becomes unattached, the arms that hold it could easily turn into spears.
The FAA may certify these facilities, but as Steele point out, regular inspections aren't happening, and it’s an issue of more than just distance. “To inspect any foreign repair station, the F.A.A. first must obtain permission from the foreign government where the facility is located,” Steele notes. “Then, after a visa is granted, the U.S. must inform that government when the F.A.A. inspector will be coming. So much for the element of surprise—the very core of any inspection process.”
While outsourcing hasn’t led to a big statistical shift in safety—meaning there’s no need for hysteria—there have been a few noteworthy, troubling incidents. NPR and Steele both catalogue a few examples that highlight how things can go wrong with the practice:
On January 23, 2009, a high-pitched “shrieking” noise filled the cabin of an early-morning U.S. Airways flight from Omaha to Phoenix. The seal on the main cabin door wasn’t functioning properly and the sound was the result of an air leak. The plane was safely grounded in Denver without incident or injury. Later, it was found that mechanics at the El Salvadoran facility had installed part of the door backward.
A 2007 China Airlines flight successfully made the trip from Taiwan to Okinawa, but burst into flames shortly after landing. The 165 passengers all made it to safety without any injuries. According to Steele, an investigation determined that mechanics at a Taiwanese facility had “failed to attach a washer to part of the right wing assembly, allowing a bolt to come loose and puncture a fuel tank.”
Steele cites the case of a 2010 U.S. Airways flight on which mechanics at the El Salvadoran facility “crossed wires that connect the cockpit gauges and the airplane’s engines, a potentially catastrophic error that, in the words of a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, ‘could cause a pilot to shut down the wrong engine if engine trouble was suspected.’” Thankfully, an airline employee noticed the error before the plane took to the air.
In 2010, an Air France flight was taken out of commission when someone noticed that parts of the plane were coated in flammable paint. The paint had been applied at facility in Xiamen, China.
In 2011, mechanics in Boston, the final destination of Air France Airbus A340, discovered that one of the airplane’s wings was missing 30 screws. The plan had been in service for five days before the error was noticed. Previously, heavy maintenance work had been done on the plane at the Chinese repair shop.
The most well-known incident was also the most deadly. In 1995, Valujet flight 592 crashed, killing all 110 passengers on board. A study by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the crash was directly attributable to faulty work done by a repair shop in Turkey.
The Valujet case is a rare serious example among a handful of more minor incidents. But airplane maintenance outsourcing will likely continue to grow, as airlines, which have become almost singularly focused on revenue and profits, rely on the practice more and more. James Steele notes that $120 million is being poured into a Dubai-based facility currently under construction by Emirates Air. Meanwhile, the El Salvadoran shop continues to service nearly every major U.S. carrier. There’s certainly a chance that the kinds of issues and incidents cited above will become more common. It’s cetainly something to remember—though not be paranoid about—the next time you hear your flight is having mechanical problems.