Skies Safer, Despite Airline Woes

While the U.S. airline industry has been going through wrenching and seemingly endless post-9/11 economic turmoil, its safety record has never been better.


It seems a happy paradox: While the U.S. airline industry has been going through wrenching and seemingly endless post-9/11 economic turmoil, its safety record has never been better.

Thousands of the industry's most experienced pilots have taken early retirement, and veteran mechanics have been displaced as financially stressed carriers cut jobs and outsource work they used to do themselves.

Delta Air Lines has shifted many of its aircraft overhauls to vendors in Miami and Vancouver, British Columbia, and striking Northwest mechanics were replaced en masse. Unions warn that replacements are poorly trained, and the AFL-CIO's transportation trades department say lax FAA oversight of contract workers is "inexcusable and dangerous."

"We're developing a gypsy work force of aircraft mechanics and technicians who have far less experience than the people they're replacing," said Dave Suplee, an International Association of Machinists safety director.

But Marshall Filler, managing director for the Aeronautical Repair Station Association, a trade group representing firms that perform contract maintenance work, said the airline industry's recent safety record showed such fears were a "red herring."

"People have been hurt economically by this trend toward contracting," Filler said. "People have lost jobs and pensions. But it's not a safety issue. It's an economic issue cloaked as a safety issue."

Not counting the four 9/11-related crashes, airlines since 1998 have chalked up an unusually safe stretch, based on the rate of fatal accidents per million departures. During that span, the highest annual rate was 0.196 in 2003, when 21 passengers died in a US Airways Express crash. The lowest was in 2002, when there were no fatalities.

Delta, now in Chapter 11 proceedings, began sending much of its heavy maintenance --- the periodic disassembly and rebuilding of airframes and engines --- to contractors in Miami and Vancouver this year. JetBlue and America West take their fleets to El Salvador, Northwest and Continental have repair stations in Hong Kong and Singapore, and United recently began flying its 777s to China for heavy maintenance.

Delta expects to lower maintenance costs 34 percent through outsourcing and reducing its own work force. Avborne in Miami will perform some Delta airframe overhauls, and ACTS in Vancouver won a $ 300 million contract to do others. Avborne also overhauls airframes for AirTran.

Delta has cut its work force from 76,000 at its 2001 peak to about 53,000 today, and it expects to cut up to 9,000 more jobs by the end of 2007. Delta has said about 2,000 jobs will be eliminated from its Technical Operations Center, based in Atlanta.

Tony Charaf, Delta's senior vice president for technical operations, said the contractors Delta used were "absolutely committed" to meeting the airline's safety standards.

"We've trained our suppliers on Delta-specific policies and procedures," Charaf said. "They'll meet our standards --- not theirs. I'm very comfortable with the process. Safety will never be compromised."

About 40 Delta employees oversee the work performed by contractors, Charaf said, and a team of pilots, flight attendants and mechanics inspects each overhauled airplane before it returns to the Delta fleet.

"This is the right strategy for Delta's survival," he said.

Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst at the Teal Group, credits new, technologically advanced aircraft for lowering the amount of maintenance each plane requires. Major carriers have parked their older, most maintenance-intensive aircraft in desert boneyards.

"Aircraft are getting more maintenance-friendly," he said, "and there's better diagnostic equipment available."

Companies like General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney perform some of the outsourced work by repairing components they originally built.

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