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Thursday, Oct 22, 2009, 10:37 am

Con Air: The ‘Safe’ Offshoring of Airline Repair

BY Roger Bybee

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An engineer checks an airplane engine in Indonesia in 2007. At that time, the EU had banned Indonesian aircraft from flying over EU territory due to poor safety after a series of crashes in the Asian archipelago.   (AHMAD ZAMRONI/AFP/Getty Images)

“We’re in the business of making money for our shareholders. If we have to put jobs and technology in other countries, then we go ahead and do it," the president of aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas's China operations said in 1996, one year before the company merged with Boeing.

Last month, General Electric stunned Albuquerque, N.M., by announcing that its 40-year old jet-engine plant employing 1,300 International Association of Machinists (IAM) members would be closed, despite high productivity and GE's assurances of additional engine work coming to the factory. Company officials are remaining virtually silent during discussions with the union and local public officials, IAM leaders say.

Given this history of shifting airplane and engine production to sites where the lowest possible wages can be found, why are we surprised when corporations running airlines decide that they can relocated airline repair and maintenance operations to low-wage sites in repressive Third World nations?

Maybe it's because so many lives are at stake in maintaining and repairing jet airplanes. Moreover, making sure that maintenance and repairs are done properly is a crucial responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration.

However, U.S. airlines have discovered that repair and maintenance of their planes is just another line of work that can be "off-shored" to low-wage nations where U.S. agencies do not, and perhaps cannot, effectively enforce a rigorous program of inspections.

Following the severe 2002 downturn in the airline industry, airline corporations began shutting down unionized repair facilities and outsourcing the work to non-union repair outfits in the U.S.

United Airlines shut down a $600 million repair center in Indianapolis where taxpayers had funded more than half the cost of construction, and shifted the work to non-union repair firms.

Other airlines went beyond outsourcing to off-shoring the repair work. "The industry is sending 1 of every 5 planes to developing countries, from Central America to Asia, when the planes need to be overhauled," according to a superb three-part series by National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling this week.

By maintaining and repairing aircraft in nations like El Salvador, airlines can save about two-thirds on labor costs. There are now 700 repair sites authorized by the Federal Avaiation Administration, including sites in in Argentina, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, China and Indonesia.

"The Aeroman company in El Salvador is becoming one of the more popular, drawing business from US Airways, JetBlue, Frontier, Southwest and other U.S. carriers," revealed Zwerdling.

But there is a cost to this corporate cost-cutting, and that is public safety. Of course, the airlines maintain that safety remains uppermost in their minds and that reparing their aircraft overseasdoes not compromise safety.

United Airways Vice President David Seymour insisted, "US Airways takes safety as our top priority. It's first and foremost in anything that we do, and we never sacrifice safety in any way, shape or form."

However, that isn't what Salvadoran workers told Zwerdling, nor is it consistent with federal reports that argue that the airline repair process has moved beyond the effective reach of FAA inspectors.

At the most basic level, all the repair manuals at the Aeroman facility furnished to the workers are in English, yet not all of the workers can read English, workers reported. This is not reassuring. One wonders about the ability of repair crews at the other 699 or so sites to read highly technical and precise manuals in English.

Moreover, contrary to the reassuring words from the United's VP, the Salvadoran workers say that they are under constant pressure to place output ahead of safety. 

In one case, the Salvadoran mechanics literally crossed wires on devices monitoring how the two engines on a passenger jet were functioning. The pilot wound up getting a false reading that one engine was not functioning, and so he shut it off. However, because of the wiring mistake, the pilot had inadvertently turned off the only working engine. Fortunately, he recognized the problem and a tragedy was averted.

But despite such incidents, the FAA has not been able to keep up with the globalization of airline repair, according to reports by the inspector general of the Department of Trasnsportation over the past six years. In his 2008 report, the inspector general declared:

FAA still does not have comprehensive data on how much and where outsourced maintenance is performed."

"Translation: 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."

The FAA has pledged to mend its ways, but has not yet implemented the needed changes. Further, the Salvadoran workers say, the FAA announces its inspections beforehand. "FAA inspectors always tell them, 'I'm going to be there on this date,' " a mechanic says. "And obviously, logically, Aeroman will do everything it can to have everything ready." The NPR story continued:

"We don't know what's going on in those facilities [foreign repair companies]," stated John Goglia, a former presidential appointee on the National Transportation Safety Board. "If we're not monitoring them properly, how do we know it's safe?"

"The margin of safety is getting thinner," [Goglia] says. "The absence of an accident doesn't mean you're safe. We should be monitoring and doing our job before there's an accident, not after."

In essence, the airlines are motivated by a desire to cut labor costs, just as many transnational corporations have set up subsidiaries in China and Mexico. But the impact of this off-shoring extends for beyond the displacement of highly-skilled workers who will never find work or pay commensurate to their skills, as Louis Uchitelle argues forcefully in The Disposable American.

These moves also elevate corporations to a new plane of virtual immunity from U.S. government inspections and public accountability. With toxic food, toys, dog food, and other products coming China, we have seen some of the fruits of production shifted beyond the effective jurisdiction of U.S. inspectors.

Based on what Zwerdling has so capably exposed about the off-shoring of airplane maintenance, the airline industry is also becoming toxic.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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