Friday, October 20, 2017

Outsourcing of airplane repair jobs imperils airline industry and national security, aviation expert says

By William J. Mcgee
William J. McGee, an aviation journalist and airline passenger advocate, is the author of “Attention All Passengers.”


Last week, more than 200 American Airlines mechanics – many of them based at LaGuardia and JFK Airports – rallied in Times Square with other Transport Workers Union members to protest the possible outsourcing and offshoring of their jobs.

Before I became a journalist specializing in airlines, I was an operations manager and licensed dispatcher who spent years working at both those airports – so I certainly feel TWU’s pain.

But beyond the loss of U.S. jobs, there’s a bigger concern: The threat to public safety and national security that comes from offshoring the maintenance work of airline fleets.

Most passengers don’t know it, but all U.S. airlines have at least some of their commercial planes serviced overseas – by unknown mechanics and far from the eyes of the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.

American Airlines was the lone commercial carrier that didn’t – but that changed a few years ago.

The next time you fly somewhere, struggling to remove your shoes and belt and worrying that you forgot to put your shampoo in a four-ounce bottle, ask yourself who has serviced the airplane you’re about to board?

For more than a decade, I've been investigating these issues, traveling to outside repair shops, and speaking to both in-house and outsourced mechanics, as well as front-line FAA inspectors tasked with overseeing maintenance of U.S. airline fleets.

When the vital mechanical and maintenance work on commercial planes is low-bid to whatever nation offers the most meager wages, there are serious implications for the industry and the country as a whole.

The domestic airline industry's stellar safety record is being threatened by the monetary incentive to offshore maintenance to locales such as Mexico, El Salvador, China and Singapore.

Even the U.S. government acknowledges “critical exceptions” that effectively create two sets of rules on plane maintenance.

When U.S. airline fleets are serviced outside the country, those exceptions can include:

No security background checks on mechanics

No alcohol and drug screening on mechanics


No duty-time limitations for the workers


No unannounced FAA inspections


These are just a few of the seismic changes to hit the airline industry since the 1990s, when I worked for Pan Am. Back then, if a major mechanical job was undertaken – an engine change on a Boeing 747 at JFK, for example – it was the job of 10 mechanics.

All 10 would be Pan Am employees, licensed by the FAA, and subject to security screening, substance testing, and fatigue policies. When the job was completed, one licensed mechanic signed the logbook to confirm the work was done properly.

Today, that same job could be done outside the U.S. by 10 unlicensed technicians who do not have to undergo FAA background checks, drug and alcohol screening or random spot checks.

When the job is finished, one licensed airline mechanic still has to sign a logbook to confirm it was done right – and because that one final step hasn’t changed, the federal government maintains there is no difference in those two models.

It’s mind-boggling, given all the security precautions passengers are forced to undergo in the days of domestic and international terrorism.

Perhaps most distressing is that so many front-line FAA inspectors have told me in confidence that budgetary and even political considerations keep them from doing their jobs.

In Tulsa, Okla., where American Airlines employs roughly 4,000 jet mechanics to keep its fleet in tip-top shape, the FAA has dedicated spots in the hangar parking lot. Its inspectors can enter the facility at any time, do random drug tests and more.

In contrast, in El Salvador, just one of the countries where airlines have outsourced maintenance jobs, I’ve been told the FAA has limited access and can’t always conduct surprise or even routine visits.

In 2010, when I was the lone consumer advocate on the U.S. Department of Transportation's 19-member Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, I recommended that the FAA, a DOT subsidiary, strengthen its oversight of outsourced repair shops.

Ultimately the proposal was voted down and we filed a dissenting opinion.

The airline industry likes to claim that the U.S. – a country of 323 million – suffers from a shortage of qualified aircraft mechanics and airline pilots.

That is not the truth. What is happening, however, is that young people looking for solid career paths see that the pay is continually falling – even as more and more of these airline jobs get shipped overseas, where wages are even lower.

The airlines are engaged in a mad race to the bottom on cost-cutting, and it can affect much more than tighter seats and higher baggage fees. Ultimately, it affects our safety and security.

Countering the deep pockets of airline lobbyists isn’t easy. But all of us need to make our voices heard in Congress and at the DOT.

William J. McGee, an aviation journalist and airline passenger advocate, is the author of “Attention All Passengers.”

Original article can be found here ➤ http://www.nydailynews.com

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