As airlines outsource maintenance, more oversight is needed at home and abroad, official says

As airlines cut costs by outsourcing their maintenance, federal safety inspectors need to keep a closer eye on the outside repair work, the Transportation Department's inspector general told Congress. Airlines contracted out 54 percent of their...


As airlines cut costs by outsourcing their maintenance, federal safety inspectors need to keep a closer eye on the outside repair work, the Transportation Department's inspector general told Congress.

Airlines contracted out 54 percent of their repair work last year, half again as much as they did in 1996, Kenneth Mead told the Senate Transportation aviation subcommittee.

"The transition to increased use of outside repair facilities is not the issue," Mead said. "It is that maintenance, wherever it is done, requires oversight."

Mead also told the subcommittee he worries about FAA oversight of non-U.S. repair stations.

He said his investigators found that 138 repair stations in France, Germany and Ireland were not inspected by the FAA at all because the civil aviation authorities in these countries reviewed them instead.

But FAA was not monitoring their surveillance adequately, he said. Foreign inspectors didn't give FAA enough information on results of their inspections, in many cases because they weren't written in English, he said.

"In a lot of cases we couldn't make hide nor hair of them," Mead said.

There are 212,188 repair stations in the United States, with 31,932 in California alone, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Some do routine day-to-day work; others do comprehensive inspections and overhauls. Most do maintenance on specific airplane components, according to the Aeronautical Repair Station Association.

Mead said airlines' chief maintenance officers do a lot of inspecting of the airlines' own maintenance, and they're supposed to do the same for outsourced repair work.

"We found they'd show up once, twice, three times a year," Mead said. "I think that's a big issue."

More than two years ago, Mead's investigators reported that contract mechanics used incorrect parts, improperly calibrated tools and outdated manuals at 18 of 21 aircraft maintenance facilities they visited.

After the investigation, the FAA agreed to add more inspectors and to check out repair stations more thoroughly and more consistently.

The number of inspectors has fallen in the past two years to 3,200 from 3,400, and the FAA's progress in improving oversight of repair stations has been slow, Mead said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said the FAA is receiving too little money from the government to do its job properly.

"I am deeply concerned that the FAA is losing a number of its most senior safety inspectors and does not have the ability to replace them," Rockefeller said.

FAA chief Marion Blakey said the agency plans to hire 80 more inspectors, but Congress may add money to its budget soon that would allow nearly 100 to be hired.

Blakey pointed out that this is the safest period in U.S. aviation history, with one fatality for every 15 million flights. There hasn't been a major commercial airplane crash in the United States in more than four years.

"We do not have any data that suggests contract maintenance is any less safe," Blakey said.

Blakey said the airlines and manufacturers also are responsible for making sure repairs and maintenance are done correctly. In some cases, she said, engine maintenance is often outsourced to the manufacturer, probably the best place to have it done.

The issue of maintenance oversight arose during the Northwest Airlines mechanics strike, when an FAA inspector raised safety concerns about the carrier's replacement workers.

After FAA inspector Mark Lund made the allegations on Aug. 22, Northwest Airlines complained about him to the FAA. Lund was reassigned to desk duty.

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