Con Air: The ‘Safe’ Offshoring of Airline Repair

Roger Bybee

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.

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.

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 zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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