October 19, 2009
Anna Christopher, NPR
AS AIRLINES OUTSOURCE MAINTENANCE TO DEVELOPING COUNTRIES
WITH LESS MONITORING BY FAA
NPR'S DANIEL ZWERDLING INVESTIGATES CONTROVERSIAL
AND GROWING PRACTICE AT MOST MAJOR U.S. AIRLINES;
TRAVELS TO REPAIR SHOP IN EL SALVADOR TO HEAR FROM MECHANICS
TWO-PART REPORT AIRING OCTOBER 19 & 20 ON MORNING EDITION
Mechanics at Aeroman, a repair company in El Salvador, and at US Airways told Zwerdling that Aeroman's employees have made at least three potentially serious mistakes in recent months, all on US Airways planes. In one case, mechanics installed a key part on the main cabin door backward, which caused the seal to start failing in mid-flight, forcing the plane to divert to Denver. Just last month, Aeroman mechanics mixed up wires on engine indicators in two airliner's cockpits. US Airways confirmed the incidents to NPR. Safety specialists told NPR that in a worst-case scenario, the crossed wires could have led a pilot to make dangerous mistakes during a flight.
One of the biggest ways airlines can cut costs is on maintenance: an airline spends far less fixing airplanes in developing countries, which is where almost 20 percent are now serviced, than it would at its own union shop in the U.S. The FAA maintains that this doesn't compromise safety because, according to Peggy Gilligan, associate administrator for aviation safety of the FAA, "there are lots of eyes looking at work that’s done on aircraft, and lots of checks and balances to see that the work is being completed properly."
But Zwerdling reports that the Inspector General at the Department of Transportation has investigated these checks and balances, and repeatedly warned that FAA and inspectors are not sufficiently monitoring foreign repairs. The inspector general found that the FAA does not require airlines to report where they send their aircraft for repairs; that FAA inspectors do not adequately monitor work at some foreign repair stations, and in some cases, seldom show up for inspections; and that some of these stations have untrained mechanics, lack required tools and store parts in an unsafe manner.
Traveling to El Salvador, Zwerdling hears first-hand accounts of substandard repairs from mechanics at Aeroman, a company that services planes from US Airways, America West, Southwest, JetBlue and others. Though the FAA requires planes to be fixed according to the airline manuals, mechanics at Aeroman say their supervisors often tell them that takes too much time. The mechanics tell Zwerdling about a gamut of problems that could potentially cause safety problems: using parts not approved for a particular repair; storing glues at incorrect temperatures; and mechanics’ inability to read manuals printed in English.
The audio of Zwerdling's reports and complete, free transcripts will be available at NPR.org following the broadcasts. All excerpts must be credited to NPR News; television usage must include on-screen credit to NPR News with the NPR logo. Morning Edition, the two-hour newsmagazine airing weekdays and hosted by Steve Inskeep in Washington, D.C. and Renée Montagne from NPR West in Culver City, California, is public radio’s most listened-to program with 13 million weekly listeners.