Airline Mechanics Cry Foul Over Outsourcing

Growth in outsourced maintenance has some workers believing safety is being sacrificed.
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Editor's note: This is the third article in a series examining the growing trend of outsourced aircraft maintenance. Click here to read Part 1. Follow this link for Part 2.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- More than $1 billion worth of aircraft maintenance has moved from U.S. airlines to third-party providers during the past six years, and that means labor's historic involvement in the industry's safety infrastructure has diminished.

Not surprisingly, unions argue that the transition, which has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs, has also contributed to a diminution in aviation safety.

Clearly, organized labor has helped to ensure that compensation for airline mechanics has been relatively high, boosting workforce stability. And unions have been deeply involved in creating self-reporting programs that have contributed to better safety. But increasingly, those programs are being implemented through other means.

"The union worker works the same airplane under the same configuration day in and day out, and he and his family and friends fly in those airplanes," says Dave Supplee, director of flight standards for the International Association of Machinists. "With the union presence, we can put a better eye on the aircraft. But when work is outsourced, we can't have any impact."

Supplee is a lead mechanic at

US Airways

(LCC)

. He is paid by the airline even though he works full time on safety matters for the union.

Turnover

Consultant Ray Valeika oversaw maintenance at airlines including Pan Am, which had unionized mechanics, and

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

, which does not. He says airlines' need for lower costs drives the move to outsourced maintenance, while unions want to maintain the status quo.

"This is a classic case where labor, whose incentive is to create more jobs, and management, whose objective is to run a good business, have not found a common ground or framework for peaceful coexistence," he says.

John Goglia, formerly with the National Transportation Safety Board and now an aviation operations consultant, says moving the high-skill maintenance work to lower-wage workers may solve some problems, but it leads to others.

For instance, he says, it requires that airlines provide additional levels of supervision to ensure the work is properly accomplished. "If you move it down, then you need more people to provide oversight," he says.

Additionally, lower wages make it tougher to find qualified workers, Goglia says. A year ago, he visited a maintenance base in China that works on U.S.-registered widebody airplanes. "They were having problems finding talented, technical people to do the work because other industries that pay more have been luring them away," he says.

Even in the U.S., Goglia says, lower wage scales resulting from bankruptcy reorganizations have meant that airline maintenance jobs are no longer considered lifetime careers.

"A lot of the work is night and weekends," he says. "So it has become just a place to stop until you can walk across the street and find something better."

New Trend

From 1989 through 1994, US Airways suffered five fatal accidents. Employees on both the management and union sides were distressed. The airline, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Line Pilots Association worked to set up a system enabling pilots to report problems, including their own mistakes, without being disciplined. Soon afterward, the airline, the FAA and the IAM set up a similar program for mechanics.

At the time, Jim Ballough, FAA director of flight standards, was the principal maintenance inspector for US Airways in Pittsburgh. "We started bringing parties together, with a proactive approach," he recalls. "It was a proverbial three-legged stool -- the carrier, the FAA and labor -- where if a leg collapses, the stool collapses."

In the early days of the program, during a period of a few months, three airplanes returned to the airport due to engine oil leaks.

"Under the old mentality, you found out who was responsible and took action," Ballough says. "But this way, we brought the parties in, and we found out that the instructions for cutting oil filler tubes were written on notebook paper, and they were not clear.

So the company completed detailed drawings and procedures,

and this problem did not recur."

During the same period, similar programs were being established at

Alaska

(ALK) - Get Report

and

AMR's

(AMR)

American. In 2002, the FAA formally established an Aviation Safety Action Program for the entire industry.

Now, "if an error is made, the mechanic can feel free to report it, without fear of being disciplined by the company or the FAA," Supplee says. "Then we can review what happened and determine if it is one instance or a sign of a growing problem. Then we do what we can to prevent a repeat."

So far, 62 operators, including airlines and third-party providers, have established ASAP programs, the FAA says. A total of 128 programs exist, because various employee groups -- pilots, dispatchers, mechanics and flight attendants -- have individual programs.

Doing It ASAP

A disproportionate number of those involved in the US Airways/FAA cooperative program have gone on to become safety advocates throughout the airline industry. Supplee's job was previously held by Goglia.

Basil Barimo, vice president of operations and safety for the Air Transport Association, was senior director of quality at US Airways. Mike Drew, former maintenance quality assurance supervisor at US Airways, helped set up an ASAP at

AirTran

(AAI)

.

To be sure, union involvement is no longer essential when it comes to ASAP programs.

JetBlue

(JBLU) - Get Report

has three. They also exist at third-party firms like Aeroframe Services and Timco.

Illinois-based

AAR

(AIR) - Get Report

, which maintains narrowbody airplanes for several major carriers, has an informal program which has not yet been officially recognized by the FAA. A former US Airways vice president of line maintenance, Mickey Cohen, is AAR's vice president of operations.

In Indianapolis, AAR operates a repair station at a maintenance base that was abandoned in 2003 by

United

(UAUA)

. In 2005, when AAR began to maintain United aircraft at the base, it also began efforts to set up an ASAP program similar to United's.

Implementation has been a challenge, says Rayner Hutchinson, AAR corporate vice president of quality and safety, because the programs have historically been based on the relationship between an airline and the FAA.

"We spent a year trying to figure out how it would work," Hutchinson says. "The voluntary reporting programs come from the air carriers,

but the rules apply to air carriers and stations equally. Our attempt has been to take advantage of the work that's already been done,

but to pursue standalone agreements with the FAA."