Whether it's competition over fares, routes, in-flight amenities or labor contracts, the business of aviation is often a dogfight. Now there's a tussle taking place largely out of public view over whether the steadily increasing outsourcing of aircraft maintenance -- especially to overseas locations -- constitutes a public safety hazard.
Yes, it does, say the leaders of some U.S. aviation unions who claim regulators' oversight of outsourced maintenance is not tight enough, especially at overseas repair stations. Members of the unions do work that ranges from checking landing gear and testing jet engines to completely tearing down and rebuilding planes.
No, it doesn't, say major U.S. carriers who use what they say are high-caliber contractors to handle major assignments, after employing a complex formula to determine what work is outsourced and what stays in-house.
In 2005, nine major U.S. carriers outsourced 62 percent of the $5.5 billion they spent on maintenance, up from 37 percent in 1996, according to the Transportation Department.
The nation's airlines have outsourced maintenance for years, but the need to cut costs and streamline operations in recent years has pushed money-losing carriers to forgo doing most maintenance work at their owned-and-operated depots in favor of contracting with third parties. In the first three quarters of 2006, the amount of outsourced work hit 64 percent, an all-time high.
Outsourcing accelerated after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and a recession early this decade contributed to the $40 billion in losses reported by U.S. carriers. To cut their losses, the airlines slashed 130,000 jobs, including thousands of highly skilled and well-paid aircraft mechanics. Early this month, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association said the number of mechanics and related workers it represents at United Airlines has fallen to 5,600, from 15,000 in 2001.
The nation's airlines also have sought to cut costs by squeezing concessions from remaining workers, reducing the number of flights, parking unused planes in the desert -- and sending work to independent U.S. and overseas repair stations.
Shortage of inspectors
Like the airlines' maintenance bases, these foreign and domestic repair stations are certified by inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration.
However, last month, Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department's inspector general, told Congress that the FAA's safety inspection regime is riddled with flaws that weaken its oversight of repair stations, both at home and abroad.
"The issue is not where maintenance is performed, but that maintenance requires effective oversight,'' Scovel said.
As part of its standard procedures, the FAA requires air carriers to oversee their third-party contractors. The FAA also sends staff inspectors to tour domestic and overseas stations, observe their work, question workers and supervisors and review the airlines' audits. Station managers receive verbal feedback and a letter when corrections are needed. According to the agency, "The FAA does at least one comprehensive, in-depth inspection every year at each repair station inside the United States.''
Nevertheless, Scovel recited a litany of criticisms to Congress: The FAA doesn't have enough inspectors to do the job; inspectors don't visit stations often enough, especially overseas, in part because the FAA's travel budget is too small; the agency inexplicably pays much closer attention to the airlines' maintenance bases than to distant overseas contractors. U.S. carriers even use repair stations at home and abroad that have not been certified by the FAA, Scovel said.
There are 4,227 U.S. aircraft repair stations and 694 FAA-certified foreign stations, according to the FAA, which employs 3,865 safety inspectors. On March 29, the same day Scovel testified, the FAA issued a fact sheet touting "tough FAA standards for 'outsourced maintenance' and posted it on its Web site, .
Last week, several House members introduced a bill to direct the FAA and Transportation Security Administration to impose tightened security rules and audits on foreign repair stations.
The American aviation system is the safest in the world, in part because of the quality of the repair and maintenance systems that help keep those jumbo jets aloft.
Almost half the 5,000-employee Atlanta shop's engine overhauls --- which can take two months and cost $1.5 million --- are for outside customers.
The FAA's voluntary process for airlines to report their top 10 "critical maintenance" providers has produced reports from only seven of nine carriers.