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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When you fly, who do you think has been taking care of your airplane? Mechanics in Chicago - San Francisco, perhaps? Actually, there's a good chance that your plane had major repairs recently in another country - like Mexico or China or El Salvador. And the reason that U.S. airlines send about 20 percent of their planes for maintenance in other countries is simple: It's cheaper. The airlines say foreign mechanics keep planes as safe as any repair shop in America, but investigations by NPR and the federal government raise concerns. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has more.

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DANIEL ZWERDLING: Do you want to hear where some airlines are sending planes to be fixed?

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ZWERDLING: Go to Central America, to the capital of El Salvador.

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ZWERDLING: We'll start our visit around the central plaza. There are hundreds of market stalls under flimsy awnings, and they give you a quick sense of why more and more American airlines are sending their planes to El Salvador to be fixed: labor is cheap. A haircut: a dollar. Avocados: two for 25 cents. My interpreter and I stop at a booth where the man's fixing appliances.

What is the typical income here?

Unidentified Man (Appliance repair man): (Through translator) I would say, between $200 to $250 a month.

ZWERDLING: Part of you might be wondering: Do I want mechanics in El Salvador to fix our planes? And these market stalls provide one possible answer; mechanics here can fix anything. This guy's taking the motor apart on a kitchen blender. He says a new blender would cost $20, but he's going to fix this one for 10.

You know, if I took a broken blender like that to a repair shop in the United States, they would say: We don't fix that; buy a new one.

Unidentified Man: (Through interpreter): Yes but here, we always find a way to repair it. All of us are poor.

ZWERDLING: And he's proud that his countrymen are repairing planes now, from the States. And here's how it works. U.S. airlines are supposed to overhaul every airplane at least every couple of years, so companies like Jet Blue and U.S. Airways and Southwest fly some of their planes down here. Salvadoran mechanics strip the inside of the plane down to the bare metal. They fix cracks and rust and bad wiring. Then they put everything back together, and the plane flies back to the States. Kevin Michaels runs an industry consulting firm called AeroStrategy. He says the record shows these global repair shops are doing a great job.

Mr. KEVIN MICHAELS (AeroStrategy): Over the last 10 years, we've seen a significant growth in globalization. And at the same time, air travel has become significantly safer. If this were compromising safety, I suspect we would have seen it by now

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Unidentified Man (Announcer): From NBC News in Washington, this is…

ZWERDLING: Airline companies back in the States used to fix most of their own planes. They had armies of union mechanics, but that started to change back in 2002. That's when this show was broadcast.

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Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (NBC Nightly News Anchor): American Airlines cuts flights. U.S. Airways files for bankruptcy. Is United next?

ZWERDLING: The airlines are trying to survive, partly by slashing the cost of maintenance. Consider, if an airline overhauls its own planes in the U.S., it spends up to $100 per hour for every union mechanic. But the airline spends half as much at an independent, non-union shop. And it spends a third as much in El Salvador. So today, the industry is sending most of its planes to be repaired at private repair shops. Almost 20 percent of the planes are going to developing countries.

Do you feel just as confident taking a trip with your family on an airplane that was maintained at a place like El Salvador as a plane that was maintained here in the U.S.?

Ms. PEGGY GILLIGAN (Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Federal Aviation Administration): I trust any aircraft that's been maintained to FAA standards.

ZWERDLING: Peggy Gilligan helps write those standards. She's the number two official at the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration. A repair shop can oversee the work on U.S. airplanes, only if FAA has given its seal of approval. And then the FAA is supposed to keep inspecting it, whether the shop's in the U.S. or overseas. So far, the FAA has approved about 700 foreign repair companies in countries like Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Indonesia.

Ms. GILLIGAN: The system expects that 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.

ZWERDLING: But actually, the inspector general at the Department of Transportation has investigated those checks and balances, and he warns that FAA inspectors keep missing problems at repair shops, especially in other countries. The inspector general wouldn't talk with us for this story. He says his reports speak for themselves. So we've asked an NPR producer, Dianna Douglas, to read excerpts.

DIANNA DOUGLAS (Reading): FAA still does not have comprehensive data on how much and where outsourced maintenance is performed.

ZWERDLING: Translation: The FAA does not require the airlines to tell them which foreign repair shops they're actually using. So the FAA isn't sure which they should inspect.

DOUGLAS: There is no standard for all FAA offices regarding initial inspector visits, which can cause safety issues to go unchecked.

ZWERDLING: Translation: The FAA's inspectors didn't even show up at some foreign repair stations for as long as three to five years.

DOUGLAS: Problems existed, such as untrained mechanics, lack of required tools, and unsafe storage of aircraft parts.

ZWERDLING: No translation needed. The FAA told the inspector general they'd correct these problems. Gilligan says they're working on it.

Ms. GILLIGAN: He has made recommendations that FAA improve its oversight, and we take those recommendations seriously.

ZWERDLING: But so far, FAA has not put most of the changes in place.

Mr. JOHN GOGLIA (Former presidential appointee on the National Transportation Safety Board): These findings are very, very disturbing.

ZWERDLING: John Goglia used to be a presidential appointee on the National Transportation Safety Board. He says FAA has so little information on foreign repair shops that they don't even know if they're worse or better than shops in the U.S. He worries about them.

Mr. GOGLIA: We don't know what's going on in those facilities. If we're not monitoring them properly, how do we know it's safe?

ZWERDLING: Look at flying - it's the safest it's ever been.

Mr. GOGLIA: The absence of an accident doesn't mean you're safe. You should be monitoring and doing our job before there's an accident, not after.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: Back in El Salvador, I called the company that's fixing the planes. It's called Aeroman, and their executives refused to talk to me. So I found some of their mechanics.

What sort of airlines have you worked on?

Unidentified Man (Mechanic): Jet Blue, U.S. Airways, Frontier.

ZWERDLING: The mechanics at Aeroman told me a troubling story. Early this year, they overhauled a Boeing 737 for U.S. Airways. On January 23rd, the plane was flying with passengers from Omaha to Phoenix. Suddenly, the seal on the main cabin door started failing. Air started shrieking through the cracks. The plane diverted to Denver. U.S. Airways has confirmed this incident. It turns out that mechanics at Aeroman had installed a key part on the door backward.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, more potential safety problems at the repair company in El Salvador. You can view an interactive map, showing how aircraft maintenance has extended well beyond U.S. borders, at npr.org.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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