One of 70-million travelers a year, I flew out of Chicago’s huge four-terminal O’Hare airport to San Francisco on April 9 in a United Airline B-767 aircraft. The large Boeing jet holds 244 passengers and was unexpectedly full.
Optimistically hoping for a first-class upgrade or at least an aisle, I had to settle for the dreaded middle cushion. I purposely selected a flight only a few days earlier that had many open seats. But to no avail.
With each such unlucky break in life, I think maybe I should not have rebelled against Catholicism at such an early age. Perhaps I could more easily endure four and half hours of airborne misery in the heavenly skies if consoled by the thought I was serving some weird type of worldly penance for sins both committed and enjoyed.
I am apparently condemned to seek more earthly explanations for my duress.
1,100 flight cancellations by American Airlines on my chosen travel day is the short answer. The carrier would ditch another 900 flights the following day. Ultimately, over 250,000 passengers would be stranded as the carrier rushed to make adjustments to “wiring bundles” on its fleet of 300 MD-80’s.
Similar maintenance problems never before publicly disclosed hit several other major carriers, affecting many tens of thousands of passengers. It suddenly became very clear that there was more to worry about than my seat assignment.
Inside the Private World of Aircraft Maintenance
It all 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 flying public was given its first good look inside the private world of aircraft maintenance. It wasnt very 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 while at 24,000 ft. One flight attendant was immediately ejected leaving 94 other strapped-in passengers and crew gasping for oxygen.
Incredulously, the crippled Aloha Airline aircraft landed safely with only that one tragic fatality. This frightening example is still vividly 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 for cracks and yet still gave the carrier a free ride. Worse, it was learned safety-conscious FAA inspectors were overruled when they reported the violations.
In testimony this month before Congress, Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) Calvin L. Scovel III, who has oversight over the FAA, frankly 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-Minn), 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 embarrassing disclosures prompted a full-scale investigation of other U.S. air carriers. Just in the last few weeks, American Airlines repaired wiring on 145 aircraft and United 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 the most critical independent safety experts are quick to reassure that the skies remain the safest at any time in history.
Can I Please See Your License?
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 exposed in the last few weeks 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.
The latter was not an uncommon occurrence. Many national safety experts recognize 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% of their maintenance, up from 37% in 1996. The industry doesn’t even pretend this is being done to advance safety; it openly acknowledges it is being done 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 unlicensed 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 post-outsourcing world, licensed mechanics are signing off work they themselves do not personally perform. It is also improbable to assume they observe each and every aspect of the operation performed by these unlicensed workers.
Outsourcing Flies Under FAA Radar
In any case, the FAA has no way to monitor this work because it admits to not even knowing 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, for example, indicated 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.
www.ConsumerReports.org 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 Inspector General 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. 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.”
The FAA is cruising along with an extremely-flawed flight plan extending “EZ Check-In” privileges to low-cost vendors, some licensed, some not.
FAA in the Clouds, Maintenance on the Ground
Another constant criticism in the last few years from conscientious inspectors within the FAA is that the agency has greatly 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 www.ConsumerReports.org, 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 rapid technological advances in the industry. What it means in practice is that Ms. Blakey deflects criticisms by repeating ad naseum the very fortunate statistical trend that “no major airline incident has occurred since November 2001.”
Veteran FAA employees see it otherwise. They argue that primarily relying on examination 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 us 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 former President (ret), Air Transport Employees Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org