Passengers boarding a JetBlue airliner are likely to be struck by the soft leather seats, personal satellite televisions and generous leg room. What they probably don't know is that the sleek Airbus A320 may have just undergone heavy maintenance -- in El Salvador.
Unions for U.S. aircraft mechanics have been fighting the trend of outsourcing airplane maintenance overseas -- without much success -- since 1988, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began allowing domestic airlines to send their planes abroad for scheduled maintenance, such as heavy engine overhauls.
But with pro-labor Democrats writing an FAA reauthorization bill, the issue has gained new prominence. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James L. Oberstar said the House FAA bill, which could be marked up as early as next week, will address foreign aircraft-repair stations. Meanwhile, a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee has scheduled an oversight hearing on the subject for Wednesday.
"We will deal with the issue," said Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who has said he considers the issue a public safety concern.
Oberstar said he hasn't decided whether to address the standards for what kinds of repairs can be conducted in certain facilities. But he said the bill will include language that would boost the number of FAA safety inspectors who oversee foreign facilities.
"Certainly the FAA is deficient in numbers of personnel [overseeing foreign repairs]," he said. "It's not enough. And we're going to increase those levels, to some number that I have not yet decided upon."
Airlines argue that outsourcing repair work is widely accepted, safe and even necessary in a global marketplace. Unions contend that foreign mechanics typically lack the skills and training of their U.S. counterparts and that the FAA does little to oversee the quality of overseas facilities.
Both sides claim the high ground of safety, but in many ways the debate is a classic battle between jobs and costs.
"The fact is, [outsourcing] is done for one reason, and that's to save money," said Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill., who is drafting the House FAA bill along with Oberstar. "It's becoming a major concern."
For U.S. airlines that have struggled with skyrocketing fuel expenses, hefty pension and labor costs and the disruption in business after the 2001 terrorist attacks, outsourcing maintenance is a matter of simple economics. The Transportation Department's inspector general reports that the percentage of maintenance costs spent on outsourced labor -- a large portion of it foreign -- increased to 67 percent in 2006, from 37 percent in 1996.
With mechanics in Asia or Latin America earning sometimes as little as half what their U.S. counterparts earn, experts say it is no mystery that airlines competing for fare-conscious passengers have increasingly looked to reduce maintenance costs.
"People know if they lose something [from service] in the cabin," said Ken Button, director of George Mason University's Center for Transportation Policy. "They know if they lose a bread roll off of the dinner. Saving money in the cabin is getting increasingly difficult. If you can save a little bit of money without being noticed by passengers, it's one thing [airlines] really want to try and do."
But at a subcommittee hearing in March, Oberstar questioned whether the FAA is doing enough to make sure that foreign repair facilities meet U.S. standards.
"The [act that created the FAA] says, 'Safety shall remain at the highest possible level,' '' Oberstar said. "Not at the level airlines can afford, not what they want to pay, not what they can outsource to pay, but the highest possible level. And FAA is that guardian."
In a 2005 report, the Transportation Department's inspector general noted that airlines are increasingly using uncertified overseas maintenance facilities. FAA-certified facilities must adhere to more rigorous standards, whereas uncertified facilities typically require only a single FAA-certified mechanic to sign off on repairs.
There are no requirements for FAA inspections or quality-control systems at uncertified facilities, and the inspector general said the FAA does not even maintain a list of which repair facilities airlines use.
The FAA says the standards for overseas and domestic mechanics are similar but acknowledges that it cannot require foreigners to undergo the background checks and regular drug and alcohol testing required of U.S. mechanics.
"We require that all aircraft that are registered in the United States be maintained to U.S. standards, regardless of where they operate," said Nicholas A. Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety. "Due to the global nature of aviation, we must have repair stations that meet U.S. standards throughout the world."
At the hearing in March, Oberstar expressed skepticism about FAA claims that El Salvador has a certification system so similar to the United States' that the agency considers the TACA Aeroman facility used by JetBlue Inc. to be fully certified. JetBlue says TACA's facility has operated since 1931 and is highly regarded. The carrier says it also maintains its own supervisors at the site.
"It's not a shortcut by which shoddy maintenance is tolerated," Basil Marimo, vice president of operations and safety for the airlines' trade group, the Air Transport Association, testified at the March subcommittee hearing. "If there's a systemic problem with contract maintenance, the safety data would have exposed it."
Although there have been no known accidents directly linked to subpar overseas repair work, Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, suggested it is only a matter of time. He said his union receives frequent anecdotal reports from U.S. mechanics who find themselves repairing aircraft because "the facility that did the work basically didn't know what they were doing."
Although the unions and their congressional allies are pushing for new restrictions on foreign maintenance, the FAA and the Homeland Security Department have yet to begin conducting safety audits of foreign repair facilities mandated in the last FAA reauthorization (PL 108-176), in 2003.
House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Jim Langevin, D-R.I., have introduced legislation (HR 1981) to compel the agencies to start conducting these audits.