Torqued: NASA Data Reveals Intimidation of Airline Mechanics

 - May 5, 2015, 2:00 AM

I have been concerned about recent reports by mechanics at major airlines of intimidation and pressure by supervisors to violate FAA safety rules. One situation I discussed last month resulted in a federal lawsuit by mechanics and their union against the airline and the other involved a settlement of a whistleblower complaint by a mechanic at a different airline. These situations got me interested in finding out what NASA’s aviation safety reporting system (ASRS) data would show: whether any mechanics were reporting intimidation or fear of reprisal in conjunction with their maintenance employment. NASA maintains the ASRS database to encourage airmen to submit voluntary reports of safety information without fear of the FAA learning about them and using them improperly.

After going through the 76 separate reports that date back to 1999, I have focused on the 40 reports from the last five years. 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 (distinguishing between Parts 121 and 135) and the make and model of aircraft. Of those 40 reports, 36 involved Part 121 airlines. Twenty-five of the reports involved large aircraft, including the 717, 737, 757, 767, 777, A320 and A321. Eleven of the Part 121 reports involved smaller aircraft, including the CRJ700, ERJ135, Q400 and ATR 72. Three of the reports were from mechanics at Part 135 operators flying a Beech 400, a Shorts SD-330 and a JetRanger. One report involved a Part 91 mechanic working on a Cessna 337B.

NASA analysts reviewed, categorized and summarized all these reports. In many cases, mechanics were contacted for additional information and this was included in the reports. While many of the reports mention that stress and pressure to adhere to a schedule affect the quality of maintenance, some specifically mention intimidation and threats by management. These are a sampling of those reports:

Synopsis. A line aircraft maintenance technician (AMT) describes a hostile work environment where an aggressive and irate line maintenance supervisor attempted to intimidate him into working around FAA rules and regulations. Technician had found a damaged “wing to body” panel during an overnight maintenance visit on a 737-800.

The detailed write-up further explains what occurred when a mechanic requested a line engineering order (LEO) to allow deferral of the damaged panel found during a walk-around. “At shift turnover (with the LEO not accomplished by our local technical support), maintenance supervisor X became irate and aggressive and tried to attempt to intimidate me by getting in my face and yelling that an LEO was not necessary and I needed to go out and finish the aircraft.” After the mechanic told him that the only alternative according to the manual involved non-destructive testing, the supervisor told him “Go home then, right now.” According to the report, the supervisor later calmed down and the mechanic was not sent home. 

Synopsis. A line aircraft maintenance technician reports that, fearing for his continued employment, he did not document or inform his air carrier management personnel about loose “smoking” rivets on the left and right engine exhaust nozzles on their MD-83.

The narrative indicates that the mechanic had previously written up similar maintenance items “only to be sternly counseled and threatened with further harm to my employment with my air carrier if I continue to report maintenance defects.” He further stated: “My attempts to use internal remedies, such as the company internal confidential business ethics hotline, the grievance process within the union/company bargaining agreement, and filing of previous reports regarding my findings and company actions, have placed me in harm’s way regarding my employment.”

Synopsis. A line aircraft maintenance technician reports that he and another technician were threatened with “public humiliation and termination” if they did not reuse the mounting hardware that was damaged during a difficult removal of number 1 pack flow control valve on an A321.

The write-up in this case indicates that the mechanics involved were ordered by the manager on duty to reuse the damaged hardware. The manager threatened to parade them “around the gate area to inform the passengers why they can’t go on vacation on time” and to “walk us to the gates” if the damaged hardware was not reinstalled.

Synopsis. An aircraft maintenance technician reports that numerous towbars are broken daily during aircraft pushbacks by ramp personnel and are seldom reported to maintenance. As a result, nosegear inspections are not being carried out on the affected aircraft. Ramp personnel cite concerns about “getting in trouble if they report” or “tell their supervisor after aircraft has left,” or “it’s OK unless the pilot has a problem.”

The report details an investigation that followed damage to a 767 on pushback. Ramp personnel exceeded the turning limits of the nosegear, breaking the towbar. This was not reported until the crew discovered on taxi that they had no steering. Reports by mechanics of concerns with broken towbars led to the discovery that 364 towbars had been broken in an eight-month period but that many fewer had been called in to maintenance for an aircraft nosegear inspection. Ramp personnel reported being afraid to report broken towbars or being specifically instructed to wait until the aircraft left or the pilot reported a problem.

Synopsis. An aircraft maintenance technician reports about improper maintenance practices he was directed to follow under threat of losing his job, after a 767-300 arrived with a slat asym Eicas message and leading edge light illuminated.

According to the mechanic, “I did so knowing at the time that not doing so would cost me my job. I did it, sleep deprived and under extreme duress, knowing that not doing so would be at the expense of my job.”

Synopsis. A line mechanic reports he noticed lightning-strike damage on the lower fuselage body fairing of a 777 before departure schedule. He documented the discrepancy, but was threatened with an investigation by his maintenance supervisor after he refused to alter his logbook write-up to indicate chipped paint.

The narrative states: “Based on my judgment and experience, it was lightning damage and I refused to alter the [logbook] item. At that time, Supervisor X ordered me to get a union shop steward because he wanted to convene a hearing….Management and a lead mechanic felt it was not lightning damage, but refused to sign the item off.”

Synopsis. An aircraft maintenance technician describes a maintenance work environment where overhauls are not accomplished, engine failures not reported, incorrect fuel used, aircraft discrepancies not written up; all combined with a fear of retribution.

This mechanic works at a Part 135 operation. According to the NASA write-up, the mechanic “stated nobody puts anything in writing. Many senior maintenance management personnel have left…He thought this would be a wake-up call for their oversight federal regulators, but so far, an overall element of fear continues and quality assurance exists only in name.”

Synopsis. Two aircraft maintenance technicians report about the harassment they were subjected to by their maintenance management for following maintenance manual (M/M) procedures on a field trip. They were troubleshooting a pilot report that spoilers had deployed during taxi-out on an EMB-135.

Interviews by NASA of the mechanics involved included the following statements: “…we were asked by the line maintenance group Mr. X in an intimidating way, why did we replace a brake control unit for a spoiler problem. We explained to him once again that those tests were part of the [airline M/M]…” The mechanics further stated: “We felt harassed and pushed to take shortcuts from the [airline M/M] to have the aircraft back in service. We believe this kind of pressure can lead to a mistake that can compromise the safety of our aircraft, employees and customers.”

Synopsis. A line mechanic reports he continues to be harassed by maintenance management for discovery of obvious defects and moisture ingress at the L-3 (left) and R-3 (right) cockpit side windows on their 757-200.

A mechanic reports multiple instances of disciplinary charges brought because he documented moisture ingress in cockpit windows “while checking logbook.” He states that he “was charged with violating company rules. The charges were eventually dropped. Now I’m again being brought in for another investigation” for again documenting moisture ingress. The mechanic stated that management “expects him to ignore obvious defects to avoid a delay.” The mechanic reports that the maintenance manual does not allow moisture ingress because it can lead to electrical arcing.

Synopsis. A line mechanic reports about the intimidating behavior and job termination threats by his manager if he did not sign off a write-up for a cloudy film streak in a fuel sample from a 757-200. Mechanic noted a required micro-biological test had not been completed that would certify the airworthiness of the aircraft’s fuel.

The analysis stated, “The intimidating behavior from his manager and supervisor was very upsetting. He was told…he must sign off the fuel contamination write-up or be terminated, even though everyone knew the required lab report for the micro-biological test would not be available to determine a maintenance plan for dealing with that type of possible contamination.” 

Synopsis. A line maintenance mechanic reports a certain company maintenance controller’s repeated efforts, using pressure and intimidating tactics, to get him to deviate from their maintenance and company procedures manuals and sign off a ferry permit. The Q400’s radome had been damaged and the structural repair manual (SRM) did not allow further flight without contacting the manufacturer.

The mechanic describes visible structural damage to the radome and determined that the structural repair manual did not allow for any damage. The maintenance controller wanted him to sign a ferry permit even though the “radome damage exceeds the limitations outlined in the ferry permit and I would not sign a ferry permit unless there is an [engineering authorization] or some kind of relief for a one-flight temporary repair.” The maintenance controller “repeatedly asked me to deviate from the [aircraft maintenance manual] and the procedures manual by using pressure and intimidating tactics.”

Synopsis. A lead mechanic reports being threatened with job removal by his manager if he did not perform a detailed inspection of an elevator tab control mechanism with a pending AD (Airworthiness Directive) on a 737-800, even after explaining to the manager he was not trained and qualified to perform the job.

According to the mechanic, when he expressed concerns about performing an inspection previously performed by quality assurance inspectors, the manager “threatened to pull my [company employee] badge and remove me from service if the job card was not completed by the end of the shift.” 

Synopsis. A line mechanic reports he inadvertently performed a more involved overnight-2 service check instead of the scheduled overnight-1 check on a company ATR 72-200. The mechanic was disciplined for not following the scheduled overnight-1 check even though he found positive chip indications from both engine chip detectors, which delayed the aircraft for three hours.

The mechanic reports he “was given first step [discipline] for finding the discrepancy.”

Synopsis. A shop mechanic attempted to stop the robbing of parts from damaged A320 reverser halves that were painted “scrapped” in red lettering. The reverser halves were not quarantined, the lead would not stop and the supervisor said there was nothing he could do. Mechanic was later harshly questioned by two supervisors about his role in alerting shop mechanics about the illegal practice.

According to the report, a lead mechanic directed other mechanics to “strip parts from the scrapped reverser and use acetone to remove the 'scrapped' red lettering….When the mechanic told his supervisor, he was told there was nothing the supervisor could do and that he should report it to the safety department. After the mechanic reported it to the safety department, “he was brought into a room and harassed by two other supervisors who harshly questioned him about his role and another mechanic’s role in alerting shop mechanics about the improper maintenance.” The mechanic stated that this experience left him “very concerned about his management’s attitude toward those who bring forward any safety issue.”

Synopsis. An inspector reports finding five out of 10 wing center-section front spar fittings cracked on a 737-700. The fittings are located on the center fuel tank with fasteners going through the tank. Inspector also describes environment where he was pressured to “not” make inspection write-ups on the tank fittings.

The mechanic described a “very irate quality control (QC) manager [who] called me up and told me not to generate the [non-routine] cards and if I did he was going to be forced to create a [disciplinary] investigation or some other form of punishment.” Thereafter, even though cracks were found under five of the 10 fittings, the mechanic was handed a letter informing him “of a disciplinary investigation regarding those same fittings.”

Synopsis. A line lead mechanic describes the events surrounding his manager’s efforts to get him to sign off the aircraft release of a 757-200, even though a maintenance NoGo item had not been completed.

In reviewing the data, it’s important to remember the caveats made by NASA in the letter transmitting the information to me. Since the information is reported voluntarily, there is no way of determining trend data or doing any kind of statistical analysis. NASA, however, does state that “[o]ne thing that can be known [about] ASRS data is that the number of reports received concerning specific event types represents the lower measure [emphasis in original] of the number of such events that are occurring.” NASA further states that the real power of these reports is in the “qualitative data,” the detailed information that reports what occurred and, more important, why it occurred.

It is disturbing to think that there are even this many incidents of mechanics being threatened and intimidated when trying to perform maintenance, but to think that there are likely even more is indeed dismaying. And to think this is happening on airlines flying large aircraft carrying hundreds and hundreds of passengers is particularly disturbing.

Mechanics who feel intimidated or threatened should file hotline complaints with the FAA, although that agency’s track record on finding and halting these problems is not great. The complaints can be filed anonymously, but filing anonymously might affect the FAA’s ability to take enforcement action. Another alternative is to file a hotline complaint with the DOT IG.  I have found IG agents to be more aggressive than FAA inspectors in trying to track down these types of complaint.  

A final note to any airline management reading this: Could this be your airline described in any of these reports?