Outsourcing Air Maintenance

Northwest Airlines wants to start outsourcing airplane maintenance in the United States and overseas to cut costs. From Michigan Radio, Bill Poorman reports on union concerns about outsourcing, a common practice in the airline industry.

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Mechanics at Northwest Airlines have been on strike for nearly one week now. The company and its striking mechanics paint sharply different pictures of how well Northwest is able to maintain its planes. The airline has brought in replacement mechanics and managers to help repair planes during the strike. It has also outsourced repair work. That is a practice conducted by other carriers as well. It's a way to cut costs, one that also raises safety concerns. Michigan Radio's Bill Poorman reports.

BILL POORMAN reporting:

Here at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a group of striking mechanics is walking in a circle just outside of the Northwest terminal. From this spot, they can look across the tarmac at some planes at the gates. Sometimes they see one of their replacements and can't resist offering their assessment of their work.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, when you put the hose up, you're supposed to dump it, stupid! I guess you've got the wrong training, moron!

Unidentified Man #2: I would love if he dumped that all over the ground.

POORMAN: It's unlikely that the replacements can hear them. These workers are pretty far away, and there's lots of noise here, but many replacement workers are completely out of earshot because they're working on planes in other US cities or in countries like Germany, China and Brazil. Government statistics show that 53 percent of airplane maintenance is now outsourced. That number is up from 47 percent two years ago and continues to grow. This trend has Bob Rose worried. He's the president of Local 5 of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, the union striking against Northwest. Today, Rose is keeping tabs on the strike from the union's base camp about five miles away from the airport.

Mr. BOB ROSE (President, Local 5, Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association): We're got airplanes that came from these third-party venders, first flight back into Detroit, and we've had those planes in the hangars for up to a week trying to fix what these guys supposedly fixed and signed off.

POORMAN: Northwest declined an interview for this report, but in documents the company put out leading up to the strike, Northwest said a strike would lead to a big increase in the use of third-party maintenance firms. The Federal Aviation Administration still certifies these repair shops both in the US and abroad, but the agency is still trying to catch up with the pace of repair and maintenance outsourcing. A 2003 audit by the Department of Transportation's inspector general criticized the FAA saying that the agency was moving too slowly. FAA spokesman Les Dorr says the agency is making progress and will issue some new rules soon, but the agency isn't alone in ensuring safety.

Mr. LES DORR (Spokesman, Federal Aviation Administration): The FAA and its regulatory responsibility naturally does oversight to ensure that FAA standards are being met, but ultimately the responsibility for safety rests first and foremost on the air carrier.

POORMAN: The FAA also doesn't always directly monitor some foreign repair stations. The US has agreements with a number of countries that allow foreign inspectors to oversee repair stations. Richard Gritta is an airline analyst with the University of Portland. He says that raises another set of questions.

Mr. RICHARD GRITTA (University of Portland): If you outsource stuff especially to Third World countries--and there is some of that going on--then are we as convinced that they have strict and tight controls over people getting in who might have various motives to sabotage pieces of aircraft and stuff? So that's apart from the financial aspect.

POORMAN: Gritta says while it's not clear that there are now security problems, Congress was concerned enough that it ordered the Transportation Security Administration to develop new security rules by August of last year. Those have yet to come out, but the agency says the proposed rules will likely be posted in the next few weeks. Either way, Marshall Filler says passengers shouldn't be too concerned. Filler is with the Aeronautical Repair Station Association which represents third-party mechanics. He says outsourced repair shops already get a lot of inspections and market pressure comes to bear if a shop does shoddy work.

Mr. MARSHALL FILLER (Aeronautical Repair Station Association): In all likelihood, that repair station--well, number one, they could either lose a lot of business or go out of business. And so safety is good business. It's always been good business, and our members don't need to have the FAA there every day for them to do the right thing. If you look at the safety record in this country, I think it bears that out.

POORMAN: And the airlines are looking to preserve that safety record while finding ways to keep costs and airfares down. Back at the mechanics union strike headquarters, local President Bob Rose says he's not sure that's possible. He says safety is ignored.

Mr. ROSE: Probably sooner rather than later you're going to see an incident, and--hope to God I'm wrong, but I can just about guarantee I'm not.

POORMAN: Meanwhile, Northwest insists that safety is a top concern. And as airlines continue to look for ways to cut their billions of dollars in losses, saving money by outsourcing their airplanes' repair is becoming an option that's increasingly hard for them to resist.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Poorman in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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