Last month I participated in a panel discussion about maintenance of the airline fleet. For a long time the airlines have depended on certified repair stations to make repairs they couldn’t tackle because of a lack of facilities or required tooling.
Since 9/11 the amount of work that airlines have sent to FAR 145 repair stations has increased at what some believe to be an alarming rate. In fact, according
to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysis of Transportation Department
data cited in Aero-News.net, Delta Air Lines spent $271 million on outsourced work in 2004 and $467 million in 2006.
However, the increasing dollar value of the work does not tell the whole story. Some airlines are outsourcing these repairs to stations outside the U.S., raising concerns among the traveling public, especially those traveling for business. Although business aviation has long used foreign manufacturers and repair facilities with good results, the pursuit of this practice by the airlines has raised some eyebrows.
Fueling concern is the number of commercial aircraft accidents in recent years that have been attributed in some capacity to maintenance. The May 1996 ValuJet crash in the Everglades and July 1996 loss of TWA 800 off Long Island, N.Y., spring to mind as two major maintenance-related accidents that resulted in significant loss of life. One accident that should have driven change in the way we repair our aircraft was the January 2003 Air Midwest accident in Charlotte N.C. In that case, the NTSB determined that mechanics and the manufacturer’s maintenance manual played a major role in causing the accident. To date the FAA has not taken any action to improve the quality of the manufacturer’s maintenance manuals.
Limited FAA Oversight
The Department of Transportation office of the Inspector General has conducted audits of the air carriers’ practices of using repair stations for their work and has found that there are many areas of concern.
One area that has not received much attention is the fact that FAA-approved Part 145 repair stations send some work out to facilities that do not hold similar FAA approval. The work performed at these non-certified facilities escapes the oversight process of the FAA’s annual inspection and quality control process and inspections. Also unknown are the qualifications and training of the people performing the work. Sometimes it is not even clear where the work is actually performed.
These issues are certainly a concern to any aviation professional and would raise flags about the qualifications of the management team controlling the airline outsourcing. Over the past few years the industry has been asked questions about outsourcing, and the answer has been the same: outsourcing is safe because we have not had any accidents. While that is not exactly accurate, some accept it.
Others have argued that outsourcing is safe or the FAA would have taken action. That answer overlooks the fact that the airlines have the primary responsibility for ensuring that the work performed is in accordance with the instructions for continued airworthiness.
Furthermore, the FAA inspector workforce is well below the authorized level and the FAA visits the international repair stations for renewal only once every two years; there are seldom–if ever–any in-between visits checking for compliance. FAA inspectors visit domestic repair stations much more frequently, and it is beyond me why those facilities haven’t complained about the difference in oversight and in the costs incurred.
Much of what I have written here has been said before and will be discussed again. However, others have not looked at the possible effect of airline maintenance outsourcing on the corporate aviation sector.
The panel that I participated on last month was sponsored by the Teamsters union and the Business Travel Coalition. Business travel organizations are concerned about this issue and have made their opinions known to their elected officials in Washington. Most of us recognize that airline seats are full of business travelers, but one example sheds light on just how many business travelers there are. One large investment firm on any given day has 3,000 people traveling for business. The business community’s stake in this issue underscores the disruption that could occur in the event of a travel disaster.
Concerns about the safety of airliners could drive demand for corporate aircraft as surely as the inconvenience factor of the airlines has. Such a migration could magnify problems for the airlines, since the business traveler pays much more for a seat than the leisure traveler does. I was recently asked to help transition another business organization away from commercial travel and into charter aircraft travel and to evaluate the organization’s purchasing its own aircraft capable of long stage lengths. Travel safety concerns were among the first issues discussed, so I believe the business community might have more concerns about airline maintenance than one might expect. This could be another good sign for growth in our corporate flying community. n