Now it’s getting serious; United Airlines outsourcing protested

By the time you read this, there could be a major battle brewing between United Airlines on one side and their 4,500 or so technicians and their union and the City of San Francisco on the other. News reports noted that United may have plans to outsource most, if not all, of the jobs at its facility in San Francisco and lay off or transfer most of the SFO employees. They might sell the whole facility. The mayor of San Francisco has joined the fray in an attempt to stop this from happening. Other politicians have also chimed in.

Mayor Gavin Newsom held a press conference with the leaders of the Teamsters Union on the steps of City Hall on March 5 in order to protest United’s planned actions. Of interest is the fact that the Teamsters do not represent the employees. Teamsters do not represent any of the affected employees of United. The union that does represent them is the AMFA, Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. They were not invited to participate in this meeting. Since there is an ongoing challenge by the Teamsters for representation, one has to wonder about the motives of the mayor and the Teamsters. (United Airlines mechanics overwhelmingly chose the Teamsters Union as their collective bargaining representative by a vote of 4,113 - 2,631, the National Mediation Board announced March 31.)

United history
United closed its maintenance facility in Indianapolis some years ago without so much as a whimper from most quarters. This occurred roughly at the same time that the Postal Service abandoned its mail sort center to FedEx and laid off hundreds of Postal Service employees who worked there. Indianapolis was severely impacted at that time. Little was done to save the approximately 2,000 jobs at United.

It will be different in San Francisco. There is even talk of lawsuits and injunctions. United will have a major fight on its hands, to say the least.

San Francisco is different from Indianapolis. It is one of the oldest and largest of United’s facilities and the flagship location, next to Denver, for this legacy airline company. United recently completed a successful bankruptcy proceeding and is obviously continuing its efforts to save money wherever it can.

According to reports, United outsources 45 percent of its maintenance to foreign repair facilities. We do not have a figure on the number of noncertificated shops that are used. This figure keeps rising because of the substantial difference in costs. Most outsourcing can be accomplished with more than a 50 percent reduction in cost. (Probably more in the case of noncertificated shops.) The figures at airlines have been rising every year. Delta, for example, spent $272 million on outsourced work in 2004, an amount which was raised to $467 million by 2006. The question always remains: what is the real cost in safety compromise for sending this work to foreign facilities?

FAA oversight limited
As we all know, our FAA is severely limited in its supervision of foreign maintenance facilities. Both certificated and noncertificated repair locations are used by our air carriers. There is little oversight of both certificated and noncertificated overseas maintenance facilities. Furthermore, things like drug testing and background checks are virtually nonexistent overseas. Our Transportation Security Administration recently reported about a senior technician who belonged to Al Qaeda and was found at a shop in Singapore photographing U.S. aircraft as potential targets. Security consultants have said that such people could easily bury weapons inside doors or fuselages for further use.

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