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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're looking this morning at the growing practice by U.S. airline companies sending almost one of every five planes to be fixed to developing countries, from Central America to Asia. They do that because it's cheaper. The industry says it's safe, but government investigations show that federal inspectors do not monitor the work properly. Yesterday, we went to a repair operation in El Salvador. Today, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling meets with mechanics in El Salvador, and they tell troubling stories about the planes you fly on.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: The airplane repair company in El Salvador is called Aeroman. I asked to meet with executives and talk with some mechanics, see their repair shop first-hand. The company said no, no and no. So I checked on mechanics on my own.

(Soundbite of alarm)

ZWERDLING: I found them along the road, literally. Aeroman's based at the international airport, about 40 minutes from the capital, and it sends buses to pick up its mechanics around the city.

How do you do, sir? Are you one of the airline mechanics at Aeroman? Do you speak English?

Unidentified Man #1: Eh…

ZWERDLING: There were five mechanics waiting for the bus at this stop. They wore shiny ID tags, Aeroman in big letters.

What sort of airlines have you worked on?

Unidentified Man #2: Jet Blue.

ZWERDLING: Jet Blue.

Unidentified Man #2: America West.

ZWERDLING: America West. Uh-huh.

Unidentified Man #2: Jet Blue, U.S. Airways.

ZWERDLING: But they said Aeroman will fire them if managers know they talked to me. So we arranged to meet later at their homes. And you could say, well, these mechanics are just typical employees grumbling, except their stories echo the problems that federal investigators found at other foreign repair companies.

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: The first mechanic lives near a church. They were having a festival. As we talk, women walked by balancing baskets on their heads. The mechanic says Aeroman pays him about $7,000 per year. He's proud of his work.

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

ZWERDLING: My interpreter is Sanya Bara Ona(ph).

Ms. SANYA BARA ONA (Interpreter): It's a great responsibility, and our supervisors are constantly highlighting to us that our job is not a game. The life of 200, 250 people that are flying depends on us.

ZWERDLING: But the mechanic says managers keep pressuring them to fix the planes faster. For instance, there's rust on a metal beam, but it's just a little over tolerance.

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. ONA: The supervisor says, oh, just leave it like that. There's no need to repair it.

ZWERDLING: The Federal Aviation Administration says mechanics have to fix the planes exactly according to the airlines' manuals. But the mechanics say supervisors tell them that takes too much time. All the mechanics, including this one, made me promise not to use their names.

Have you personally ever been pressured to do work that you thought was not 100 percent correct?

Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. ONA: Last week, we were repairing the fuselage…

ZWERDLING: The way he tells the story, they had to replace some fasteners. They're like rivets. They're called Hi-Loks.

Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)

ZWERDLING: The manual said they had to use the kind of Hi-Lok that's designed to withstand a specific amount of pressure on a specific part of the plane. But he says Aeroman didn't have the right Hi-Loks on hand. So the supervisor said, use another kind.

Ms. ONA: That would cause, actually, a crack in the fuselage when there is turbulence.

ZWERDLING: So when the supervisor said to you, look, install these other parts, what did you say to him?

Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. ONA: I told him no, because the manual does not allow me to do that.

ZWERDLING: And then what did the supervisor say?

Ms. ONA: He said he was (unintelligible), to go ahead and install it because we were in a hurry to turn around the airplane.

ZWERDLING: And I met with another mechanic, and he ticked off more problems at Aeroman. We talked outside the cinderblock house where he lives with his parents.

The mechanic says some employees at Aeroman don't store glues at the required temperature, and that potentially means that parts of the airplane could fall apart. And he says some workers can't even read the airline's repair manuals. They're all in English. Some mechanics at Aeroman can't read English. He can't. He also said he'll be fired if I use his name.

And what do that mechanics do who can't read English?

Unidentified Man #5: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. OSA: Then you have to ask for help with another colleague. And in my case, I ask for help often.

ZWERDLING: Now, in theory, U.S. government inspectors should catch these problems. The FAA has to inspect ever repair shop that fixes American airplanes in the U.S. or overseas. But the mechanics say inspections are a joke. Here's the first mechanic again.

Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. OSA: FAA inspectors always tell them I'm going to be there on this date and obviously, logically, Aeroman will do everything it can to have everything ready.

Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. OSA: Then the FAA won't ever find anything.

ZWERDLING: And the inspector general of the Transportation Department has discovered this is a widespread problem. In fact, FAA inspectors never even show up at some foreign repair stations for years. And partly as a result, FAA officials don't know if Aeroman is worse or better than other repair companies. As I mentioned earlier, executives at Aeroman wouldn't talk with me, and the only airline that talked about Aeroman is U.S. Airways.

Mr. DAVID SEYMOUR (Senior Vice President, U.S. Airways): Actually, I was very impressed with the facility, having been to a number of heavy maintenance providers here in the U.S.

ZWERDLING: David Seymour is senior vice president. He's visited Aeroman, and he says it's organized, clean, the mechanics seemed well-trained. So I told him the stories the mechanics told me. Does that trouble you?

Mr. SEYMOUR: I don't know the people you talked to and I don't know - does it raise concerns, the comments that you heard? You know, without me being able to validate that, I'm not sure that I can draw concern on anecdotal comments.

ZWERDLING: Seymour said remember, it's been years since a U.S. airliner crashed because of maintenance mistakes. It was 2003, and the repair company that messed up that time was in the States. But some people who've been following the airline industry say the margin of safety is getting thinner.

Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): That's a very scary thing.

ZWERDLING: Senator Claire McCaskill is the Democrat from Missouri. She wants Congress to force FAA to be tougher on foreign repair companies.

Sen. MCCASKILL: When you have a situation like this where you're going to El Salvador because it's going to be a lot cheaper and the company in El Salvador is going to make a lot more money if they can promise the planes out more quickly, then that is a dangerous stew that we are stirring.

ZWERDLING: Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Airways discovered a disturbing mistake at Aeroman. Mechanics mixed up the wires in the cockpits of two Boeing 737s. The gages that are supposed to show how the two engines are doing were crossed. So if you were the pilot and the gage showed an engine's in trouble, you might shut down the wrong engine.

The vice president of U.S. Airways told me that a team has gone to El Salvador. They're investigating what went wrong.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, American Airlines has gone a different route, choosing to repair its planes here in the U.S.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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