Outsourced Repair for Planes: Safe?

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.

"Safety is the constant, overriding imperative in our members' activities," said Basil Barimo of Air Transport Association, which represents major US carriers, during last week's hearing. "[The airlines] understand their responsibilities, and they act accordingly. The US airline industry's stellar - and improving - safety record demonstrates that indisputable commitment."

Or as Les Dorr, a spokesman for the FAA says: "Just because work is being done at a foreign repair facility does not mean it's unsafe at all - in fact, sometimes 180 degrees the opposite."

FAA management and the airlines note there are layers of redundancy to ensure safety. For example, in addition to the FAA-certified mechanics, the airlines' own mechanics check work when planes are returned. But during the hearing, Mr. Roach of the mechanics union said that what his members find sometimes is frightening.

"Our members have also seen aircraft return from repair facilities with the flaps rigged improperly, engine fan blades installed backwards, improperly connected ducting ... and over-wing-exit emergency slides deactivated," he says. "These aircraft had all been deemed airworthy by the repair stations."

The union that represents the FAA inspectors has also raised alarms. They contend the FAA has not given them the resources to properly oversee all the work that's now been shifted overseas or to private facilities in the US. In addition, within the next five years, 50 percent of the current inspectors will be eligible for retirement.

To improve safety, the FAA has started relying more on data analysis to identify potential problems that can be inspected selectively. Some stations, however, go for months or years without proper oversight.

That, say inspectors, has put them in a difficult position. "Assuming good intent on everyone's part, things still happen.... It's just a matter of time," says Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialist, which represents FAA inspectors.

(c) Copyright 2007. The Christian Science Monitor

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