Hot Section Opinion: No excuse for ‘hip-pocketing’ maintenance

 - November 30, 2010, 10:27 AM

Whether an aircraft is operated under Part 91, 135 or 121, the Federal ­Aviation Regulations require that maintenance discrepancies be repaired before the next flight unless there are appropriate provisions for deferring that maintenance and those procedures are followed. Air carriers further have the duty to provide aircraft logbooks for recording mechanical problems, and pilots are required to log therein any irregularities that occur during flight.

However, maintenance can be expensive, and delaying a flight for maintenance can be both inconvenient and expensive, so some entities encourage their pilots to put off repairing their aircraft to a more convenient time, after a flight or series of flights, and a more convenient place, ­usually a location where they have their own maintenance providers. This practice, unfortunately, becomes more prevalent in economic downturns, during which every dollar seems to make a difference.

To avoid the requirement to log entries in an aircraft logbook, which would then require corrective action or ­appropriate deferral before the next flight–and make FAA enforcement action so much easier if an irregularity did not have a ­corresponding corrective entry–some air carriers ask their pilots to use “alternative” methods for recording maintenance problems. This practice persists to this day–at least at some entities. It has often been referred to as “hip-pocketing” maintenance and is as old as the first maintenance logbook.

For those unfamiliar with the practice, it means “logging” maintenance discrepancies anywhere but where they are required to be logged–in the aircraft logbook, when they ­occur. ­Napkins are popular places for these wayward entries, but any scrap of paper will do in a pinch. In many cases, these discrepancies aren’t ­written down at all. Sometimes the exchange is verbal, from pilot to maintenance–a common ­practice in Part 91 operations. Sometimes these discrepancies ultimately make their way into aircraft logbooks, ­usually long after they were noted. But at least the maintenance is performed and the entry made. In other cases, the failure to use approved and required procedures means the discrepancy not only goes ­unrecorded but also unrepaired.

I’ve observed variations of all of these in my career. One airline I was familiar with years ago seemed to log all its maintenance entries only at airports where it based maintenance personnel. As a mechanic I worked on aircraft that had the misfortune–or good fortune–to experience problems almost always on approach to our maintenance base. Incredibly, the FAA never caught on that this airline conveniently experienced mechanical problems only on approach to its own maintenance bases. These mechanical problems–regardless of when they actually occurred–would be entered in aircraft logbooks on landing at the airline’s maintenance bases.

Of course, the discrepancies were carried in hip pockets for days sometimes until the aircraft returned to a maintenance base. It’s so statistically improbable that the majority of discrepancies ­entered in the logbooks ­occurred on landing at maintenance bases that you would think it would raise some eyebrows. But it never did.

There were no whistleblower ­protections in those days, and no one dared report this practice for fear of ­getting fired or blacklisted from the industry as a trouble-maker. I wish I had spoken up at the time. It’s not an excuse that I was young and ­following the lead of my supervisors. We always ­assumed–perhaps we wanted to believe–that if something really safety-critical had failed, the aircraft would have been grounded and repaired before the next flight.

At the Board, accident investigations at times led to the discovery that regardless of Federal Aviation Regulations requiring the logging of maintenance discrepancies, operators did not adhere to those formalities, even when the maintenance that was required was critical to safety of flight. And I’m still seeing the practice today in my travels across the country performing safety audits for various entities.

I have talked with employees over the years about why they don’t speak up about unsafe practices such as this one. The answers are the same as they were when I worked for an operator that had its pilots hip-pocketing maintenance discrepancies.

Sure, employees have more protections than they did back in the days when I was still turning wrenches. But peer pressure is a powerful thing. It’s tough to stand up to an illegal practice when everyone around you is doing it. And the fear of being fired remains. Today, the fear of driving your employer out of business is also very real. Employees don’t place much faith in whistleblower protections, pointing out that it’s one thing to know that there’s a law that protects whistleblowers and another to test whether it will protect you in time to keep your family fed and a roof over their heads.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN.