I’m really glad the FAA finally released the NPRM on small unmanned aircraft, those weighing 55 pounds or less. The U.S. has to move forward and catch up with many other countries—such as Canada and Japan—on providing a path for unmanned aircraft to fly commercially. I’m also hoping that getting the NPRM out will allow the FAA to focus on some other significant problems swirling around aviation that may have a much bigger impact on the flying public. It seems to me from conversations with people inside the FAA that the intense focus on UAS was sometimes too single-minded. Because of the media swirl around UAS, fed in part by some of the misleading data given by the FAA on UAS incident reports, it seems other issues more important from a safety perspective might have gotten short shrift.
One such issue is maintenance, particularly maintenance issues raised by mechanics and their unions at major airlines. One notably public dispute has gotten so contentious that a mechanics’ union actually sued American Airlines, requesting that a federal judge enjoin the company from pressuring its mechanics to violate safety rules. While unions and airlines frequently have disputes, it is extremely rare for a maintenance union to sue an airline in federal court. Another troubling maintenance issue involves the settlement of a whistleblower complaint against Southwest Airlines by a mechanic who claimed he was disciplined for reporting cracks in a 737 that were significant enough for the aircraft to be withdrawn from service for repair.
The lawsuit by American’s mechanics and union local in Chicago alleges that “to improperly keep airplanes in revenue service, aviation maintenance technicians [mechanics] at stations throughout the AA system have been subject to ongoing pressure from AA management representatives to commit maintenance fraud, disregard maintenance discrepancies, deviate from federally mandated maintenance procedures, abstain from lightning strike and bird strike inspections, and otherwise violate federal aviation standards.” The lawsuit further alleges threats and intimidation against mechanics by the airline. American denies the allegations.
But American’s response to the lawsuit was somewhat curious. According to a written statement by an American spokesperson, the FAA had not alerted the carrier to any issues: “Our communication with the FAA is ongoing and frequent, and their oversight team has not alerted us to any current critical issues or concerns.” Since when is the FAA responsible for alerting an airline to critical issues that it should be aware of from its own workforce? It is disturbing to me that these allegations resulted in a lawsuit.
Whistleblower Taken to Task
The Southwest case involves a mechanic who performed an inspection of a 737. The task card required a walk-around visual inspection of the aircraft. During the walk-around, the mechanic discovered two cracks in the fuselage and wrote them up. The cracks were significant enough that the aircraft was taken out of service for repair.
No, Southwest did not commend the mechanic for finding and writing up the cracks, as it should have. This was especially remiss of the airline when you consider that the airwaves in July 2009 were filled with the image of Flight 2294, a Southwest 737 that made an emergency landing after cracks in the skin of the fuselage caused a structural failure and rapid decompression. Instead, the mechanic was handed a Letter of Instruction citing him for working outside the scope of work of the task card. I guess the mechanic was supposed to do the visual check on the walk-around blindfolded so he didn’t spot anything amiss. (As you can tell, as a former airline mechanic and long-time safety advocate, I find this type of case infuriating.)
To make matters worse, the original letter also warned the mechanic that future violations could lead to disciplinary action. When the mechanic protested that this letter constituted a violation of the AIR-21 statutory protections for airline employees who report safety issues, the airline fought him, making various claims, including one that the letter did not constitute prohibited conduct under the statute. In the end, the administrative judge reviewing the case found that the mechanic engaged in activities protected by the whistleblower statute and that Southwest was aware of it. Before a decision was reached on the actual merits of the case, Southwest settled, removing the Letter of Instruction from the mechanic's file and paying him $35,000 for attorney fees.
These two cases got me interested in finding out what the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS, also known as “NASA reports” because that agency maintains the database) records would show on mechanics reporting intimidation. I requested the information from NASA for the past two years and promptly received the data. In less than a week, NASA was able to search the database for the keywords I had asked for related to mechanic reports of intimidation and threats and email me the information. (A far cry from other government aviation agencies that take much longer to respond, if they respond at all. Yes, FAA, that’s you I’m referring to.) As you all know, the data is compiled from voluntary safety reports from pilots, mechanics, controllers and other aviation users. I received 76 separate reports and more than 200 pages of information related to those reports, which include airline mechanics reporting intimidation and threats from supervisors for reporting safety issues.
I am going through those reports now and will let you know what they indicate. While the information is de-identified—you can’t tell who wrote the report, the airline involved or even the airport—the reports do indicate if the mechanic worked for an airline and the make and model of aircraft. While NASA gives many caveats about drawing conclusions from the data because they are voluntarily submitted reports that are not vetted for accuracy, one caveat stood out for me: “One thing that can be known from ASRS data is that the number of reports received concerning specific event types represents the lower measure [emphasis in original] of the true number of such events that are occurring.” This means, if anything, that the incidence of intimidation of mechanics is greater than the data shows here. And that is very troubling indeed.