Imagine seeing this headline: “Major Airline Uses Student Pilots on Passenger Flights.” There would be universal outrage and condemnation if an airline tried to put students in the cockpit on passenger-carrying flights–even if “just” to handle the radios or practice touching some of the controls in cruise flight. Slow as it is to react to some safety issues, even the FAA would be all over that airline in a millisecond.
Now that I have your attention, let’s substitute student pilots with student mechanics in the headline: Major Airline Uses Student Mechanics To Maintain Its Aircraft. Well, that doesn’t seem to cause the same consternation in the industry that student pilots would. After all, uncertified mechanics can perform maintenance with training and under the supervision of a certified mechanic, whereas an uncertified pilot could not even touch the controls or handle the radios of an airline flight. So what’s my beef with student mechanics working on airline aircraft?
Why am I outraged that there was no sense of outrage from the industry or the public to news recently that a repair station performing maintenance for American Airlines was using aviation students to perform maintenance on its Boeing 757 seats? The same seats, you may remember, that failed in flight. To recap, if you missed the news this past fall, passenger seats came loose on at least four Boeing 757s while the aircraft were in flight, with one such incident resulting in the pilot making an emergency landing at New York JFK Airport. Thereafter, American grounded dozens of 757s while it searched for the cause of the loose seats.
Tepid Response from Regulators
Bad enough the seats came loose, but then a recent New York Times article reports that Timco, the Part 145 repair station that was reportedly responsible for some of the faulty seat installations, used students from the National Aviation Academy in Bedford, Mass., to do some of the seat work. When I first heard this, I thought surely alarms would be going off at 800 Independence Avenue, home of our supposed safety regulators. Clearly, if students are working on airline aircraft and seats are coming loose, something is wrong with the use of these students and the job-specific training as well as Timco’s required oversight. So where does the fault lie? With the students? Probably not. After all, they are students. I would say the fault likely lies in the supervision of the uncertified people who do the maintenance. So far, the response from the FAA, as well as the industry and the public, has been fairly muted.
Part of the reason for the muted response is that maintenance does not garner the attention of legislators (dare I mention once again the Pilot’s Bill of Rights that was snuck through with nary a mention of the fact that it applies to all certified airmen, which includes mechanics), regulators, the industry and the public the way other aspects of flight do. And of course, seat maintenance doesn’t sound all that important, compared with, say, engine maintenance. But improvements in seats are a big contributor to survival rates in aircraft accidents today.
Once upon a time not too long ago, an aircraft careening off a runway could end up with a relatively intact fuselage and yet cause significant casualties. That’s exactly what happened in one of the first accidents I was familiar with as an airline mechanic: the crash of a Mohawk Airlines (one of the predecessor airlines of US Airways) Fairchild FH-227 on approach to Albany Airport one snowy night in March 1972. I was working for Allegheny Airlines, which was on the verge of merging with Mohawk at the time, so we were, of course, keenly interested in what had occurred. It was disconcerting to learn that while the fuselage remained largely intact, even after colliding with a house, 18 of the 44 passengers died, many of them because of the blunt-force trauma suffered when the seats broke loose from their tracks, crushing them during the rapid deceleration.
Another reason I believe people (even people in the industry and the FAA who should know better) are not shocked that students are performing maintenance on passenger airliners is that the Federal Aviation Regulations allow uncertified workers to perform maintenance under the supervision of a certified mechanic. And therein lies the rub: under the supervision of a certified mechanic. When this rule was first written, supervision really meant one-on-one mentoring and oversight within the context of a stable airline maintenance workforce. And that was in the days when airlines sprang for training. So even if the workers didn’t hold an A&P, they were trained and watched over closely.
As airline competition intensified, so too did the pressure to save money. And, as we all know, cuts in staffing–especially in maintenance–grew. The more experienced workers who could mentor and oversee the uncertified mechanics were pushed out, forced to retire by either attractive buyout offers or work conditions that made retirement or job changes attractive. At the same time experienced A&Ps were leaving in droves, supervisory ranks were decimated in another cost-cutting move.
And then airlines started outsourcing more and more of their maintenance to repair stations, many of them overseas where labor costs are a fraction of those in the U.S. One way those in the U.S. cut labor costs was to reduce the number of A&P mechanics and increase the number of uncertified mechanics without a corresponding increase in supervisory personnel. Some repair stations went even further in their cost-cutting: a few short years ago the same company that is now hiring students (yes, Timco) was charged with hiring illegal aliens to perform maintenance work.
So my hope is that the FAA and the industry see the use of students to perform maintenance as a wake-up call that we have reached a critical point in maintenance staffing that will end badly if not addressed with a greater sense of urgency than I’m seeing.
And to all the bean counters at American Airlines and Timco, be glad that the American 737-800 that careened off the runway in Jamaica just before Christmas in 2009 had all its seats screwed on tight. The outcome for passengers–and corporate bottom lines–might have been very different if they hadn’t been.