As Delta Outsources More Work, Its Mechanics Stay Busy Doing Lucrative Tasks for Other Airlines

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.


By transferring work from their in-house shops to contractors, especially those overseas, airlines are allowing more of their planes to be repaired by unlicensed and unscreened employees, with less monitoring by the FAA, critics contend. Moreover, outsourcing is growing even as the FAA cuts staff and the number of inspections it does, these people say.

The FAA is "not even authorizing any new repair stations right now because they don't have the manning" to inspect new maintenance shops, said Adon Clark, department chairman of the aircraft mechanic training program at Georgia Aviation Technical College in Eastman. "If they're stretched that thin now here, do they have the manning to properly oversee the process overseas?"

No, said Linda Goodrich, an FAA inspector and vice president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists union.

"I would be very worried," said Goodrich. Because of understaffing, the FAA already does fewer inspections of independent repair stations in the United States and Canada than it does at airlines' in-house repair stations, she said. Inspections of independent shops in Mexico, China and other countries are even rarer and less effective because of language and bureaucratic barriers, she added. "It's kind of a joke," she said. "We're dependent on [airlines for] self-inspection."

The FAA and Delta both counter that safety hasn't been compromised because adequate safeguards are in place. The U.S. airline industry has enjoyed some of its safest years on record of late, despite restructurings and financial crises at several carriers.

Delta, nearing the end of a Chapter 11 restructuring, created a department of about 60 mechanics and other employees who monitor contractors through audits and on-site inspections.

"We've got our team there," said Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin. "They are looking at that plane before it ever leaves the facility."

She said the foreign firms it uses, such as HAECO, are also certified by the FAA. The Hong Kong-based company, which also has a large hangar complex in Xiamen, China, has long done aircraft maintenance for Cathay Pacific and major Japanese airlines. HAECO also does work for Continental, Northwest and UPS.

In e-mail responses to questions, FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said a "risk-based" monitoring system the agency adopted a decade ago is keeping up with the industry's shift to more outsourcing.

"The ultimate proof of the quality of maintenance work being done ... is the fact that the accident rate is at an historic low," she said.

Under that system, the FAA certifies repair stations, but relies on airlines to monitor outside repair stations' work and to conduct regular audits. The FAA targets companies for inspections based on risk indicators such as safety incidents and financial stability. Duquette said two FAA inspectors overseeing Delta are scheduled to do a "surveillance visit" at HAECO this spring.

While aviation experts debate outsourcing's safety, one thing most agree on: U.S. airlines will keep doing more of it.

"I definitely think it's here to stay," said Joy Finnegan, editor of Aviation Maintenance magazine, because airlines want to cut fixed overhead costs such as in-house maintenance. "They're focusing on their core capabilities."

FARMED OUT

Many big airlines now outsource most of their aircraft maintenance, according to expense figures the airlines report to the government.

2005

maintenance

expenses

outsourced*

Alaska Airlines............89%

Hawaiian ..................80%

US Airways ................77%

America West Airlines......76%

Northwest Airlines ........73%

Continental Airlines ......69%

JetBlue Airways............68%

United Airlines............64%

Southwest Airlines ........62%

Delta Air Lines............48%

ATA Airlines ..............46%

AirTran Airways............43%

American Airlines..........43%

Frontier Airlines..........19%

* Includes parts, materials and contract cost. In-house labor excluded.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General



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