As More U.S. Aircraft Are Repaired Abroad, Are Airlines Sacrificing Safety for Profits?

Mike Elk

(Plane maintenance image via Shutterstock)

Last month, American Airlines announced that it will lay off 42 percent of its U.S. aircraft mechanics. The work those mechanics do will argely be outsourced to repair facilities within the United States or overseas that’s aren’t owned or operated by the airline. 

“[President and CEO of American Airlines] Tom Horton has talked about taking more advantage of outsourcing overseas,” say TWU President Jim Little. If they outsource in the U.S., we can manage to compete with them, but in the case of foreign carriers, they have too much of an advantage. They are not under the same scrutiny and they don’t have qualified mechanics with the same level of oversight as here in the United States.”

American Airlines spokewoman Andrea Huguely said her company will never compromise the safety and reliability of our fleet,” but must face reality.” While most of our maintenance work is performed at our own facilities, our competitors have forged a new path of having their maintenance completed where it is most cost effective,” she said. In order to compete, we must similarly adapt.” 

Currently, one in five planes operated by U.S. airlines are serviced at facilities from Central America to Asia, according to one NPR report. On average, industry analysts conclude that airlines spend half as much to repair planes overseas. The result is a dramatic increase in the last decades of the overseas outsourcing of airline mechanic jobs.

According to a January 2012 TWU report, the amount of heavy maintenance work performed outside of the United States has increased from 26 percent in 1999 to 40 percent of all heavy aircraft maintenance work. Currently, American Airlines does 90 percent of its aircraft maintenance in house, while the company’s competitors on average perform nearly 50 percent of their heavy aircraft maintenance. (TWU cites federal government statistics available here.) According to the TWU, 25,000 U.S.-based airline mechanic jobs have been outsourced in the last decade alone.

Repairing planes overseas is cheaper for airlines — and not as closely monitored by the U.S. government. According to a Department of Transportation Inspector General report issued in 2010, there are approximately 100 inspectors for more than 700 aircraft maintenance facilities abroad doing work on U.S.-based aircraft. By comparison, there are 4,000 FAA inspectors who ensure the quality of 4,200 different maintenance repair facilities within the United States. And out of eight major FAA inspection offices in the United States, just four of them completed 50 percent of their assigned inspections, the DOT inspector general reported. 

Likewise, while in the United States 46 percent of all people working on planes are FAA-certified mechanics, only 4 percent of people in similar positions abroad are FAA-certified mechanics.

Huguely says outsourcing to contractors won’t undermine safety standards or enforcement. The fact remains that any of our maintenance work that is completed by a third-party contractor will always be subject to ours and the FAA’s very rigorous safety standards. Any facility we choose to use must be certified by the FAA, in compliance with all FAA standards and is subject to audits by the FAA.” 

But Little and other union officials say that the effect on airline maintenance is devastating. A couple years ago, I was down in Miami and I saw a plane that had just got back from China. They found out the flight controls were misrigged. How this wasn’t caught or why the pilots even flew is beyond me. Our guys in Miami had to re-rig the flight controls,” the union leader says.

In 2009, a pressure leak in a US Airways plane forced an emergency landing. The plane had been repaired by an aircraft facility company — Aeroman — in El Salvador. On another occasion in September 2009, mechanics repairing planes at a facility in El Salvador connected engine wires to the wrong cockpit control gauges for those engines. Later that week, they discovered that they had done this a second time, NPR reported.

Despite the problems, Little says that politicians in Washington have failed to address the problems. Why doesn’t it show on the boarding pass where your plane was serviced? Every shirt I have says where it was manufactured. If we held them accountable like this, maybe we could force more of them to move back to the United States,” he says.

Little thinks the prospect of any action being taken to increase oversight of aircraft maintenance is slim. I think because of lobbying and big corporations wanting to save money that nobody is taking this issue. I am not saying airplanes are going to fall out of the sky, but eventually something is going to happen. Something is going to fall short.”

This article was updated on March 21 with comments from American Airlines’ spokeswoman.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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