The nation's airlines have assigned important maintenance tasks to unlicensed repair shops that aren't inspected by federal regulators, a government watchdog agency found.
Struggling to cut costs, U.S. airlines now contract out more than half of their maintenance work. While much of that work is done at repair stations certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, many other repair shops worldwide aren't licensed or routinely monitored by the FAA, according to a new report by the U.S. Transportation Department's Inspector General.
And the unlicensed shops have made mistakes, the study found. The report noted that one facility did improper maintenance on a switch that could have made it impossible to restart an engine during flight.
Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., requested the study partly in response to an Observer investigation about potentially dangerous trends in airline maintenance.
"Airlines contract out this maintenance work to save money, but with those savings we must ensure that there is not an erosion of the margins of safety and a greater risk to the traveling public and innocent souls on the ground," Oberstar said in a statement Monday.
The FAA said it's working to improve airline maintenance, but stated that even mechanics at unlicensed shops must obtain federal certification.
The Observer reported two years ago that airlines are spending less to maintain their planes and that mechanics are checking them less often. Also, while contractors are doing more maintenance on the nation's commercial planes, they receive less regulatory scrutiny than the airlines' own maintenance shops.
On Jan. 8, 2003, US Airways Express Flight 5481 crashed at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, killing all 21 aboard. National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded that an incorrectly adjusted cable and an overloaded plane were largely to blame.
The contract mechanics who worked on the plane shortly before the crash were licensed by the FAA, but were working for a noncertified company, the inspector general's report noted.
The FAA allows noncertified shops to perform maintenance as long as a federally certified mechanic oversees the work. Inspector General Kenneth Mead concluded the arrangement was inadequate, because such operations don't face the same requirements and FAA scrutiny as certified facilities.
There's no limit to the amount or type of work unlicensed shops can perform, the study found, noting that some even replace aircraft engines and doors. The inspector general also concluded that FAA wasn't previously aware that these shops were being used for more than just minor repairs.
More than 5,000 certified repair stations do maintenance work for U.S. carriers. No one knows how many unlicensed facilities do such work. But the IG's office said it had identified 1,400 facilities that do the same type of work as licensed stations without receiving the same oversight.
The IG identified 104 foreign repair facilities that weren't certified and had never been inspected by the FAA.
Airlines don't always watch those facilities closely either, Mead said. The report said the six carriers they reviewed relied primarily on telephone contact rather than on-site reviews to monitor maintenance by noncertified contractors.
The IG's auditors visited American Airlines, American Eagle, Continental Airlines, Continental Express, AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines.
One carrier, not identified by the auditors, performed no oversight of its uncertified facilities, Mead's study found.
Airline training for the mechanics of such shops ranged from a one-hour video to 11 hours of video and classroom training, the report stated. An unidentified carrier mailed a workbook to each noncertified facility and told the mechanics to read the information and fax back a signed form indicating they'd completed the training, the study said.
Mead recommended that the FAA identify noncertified shops that perform critical maintenance work, and determine whether it should limit the type of work those facilities can do. The FAA should increase its oversight of such shops if it chooses not to limit the work they can do, Mead concluded.
The FAA said the Inspector General's report failed to make clear that work at noncertified facilities is done by federally certified mechanics who must pass tests and meet experience requirements.
The FAA will evaluate Mead's recommendations, and continue to help airlines improve their safety programs, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said. She noted that new rules will create FAA-approved training programs for all airline mechanics.
"We'll work with air carriers to ensure they maintain good surveillance of the mechanics who work for them," Brown said.
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