Colson: Friendly skies, but can mechanics read the manuals?
If you never read another word from me in this space, it could be because I’m dead — killed in an airplane crash caused by faulty maintenance work at one of a growing number of outsourced “heavy maintenance” facilities around the world, where an unfortunate number of the workers can’t read the maintenance manuals for the planes they are working on.
Of course, there are other possible explanations, such as abduction by aliens (I’ve been waiting eagerly), dismissal by my corporate bosses because they’re tired of my rants, or a perfectly understandable resignation on my part because I’ve won the lottery and can buy that Caribbean island I’ve been longing to buy.
This train of thought got started when I read in Vanity Fair about how the major airlines have moved their heavy-maintenance facilities out of the U.S. to places like Latin America, the Far East and other remote locales, where workers are happy to slave away for next to nothing and where those same happily underpaid workers for the most part can’t read English.
And English, according to the VF story and other sources, is the lingua franca for international aviation.
This outsourcing of heavy maintenance has been going on for years, according to a 2011 probe by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington, D.C., working with the PBS Frontline news organization.
According to the IRW report, airlines have been reeling for a decade or more by “financial woes created by a mix of highly competitive online fare competition, the Sept. 11 tragedy, low-cost carriers and soaring fuel prices.”
Four major airlines declared bankruptcy and all airlines started scrambling to cut costs, in large part by finding “cheaper ways of maintaining their fleet of planes.”
The report stated that, while only a third of the heavy-maintenance work had been outsourced to other countries in 2003, that share grew to nearly three-quarters by 2007.
In the VF analysis, writer James Steele reported that as of right now, “nearly all large U.S. airlines have shifted heavy maintenance work on their airplanes to repair shops thousands of miles away, in developing countries, where the mechanics who take the planes apart (completely) and put them back together (or almost) may not even be able to read or speak English.”
As a part of this shift, Steele continued, the airlines have shed tens of thousands of heavy-maintenance jobs — employing fewer workers and paying them less to do work that ensures that the airplane you are in stays in the air.
One of the fastest-growing offshore repair facilities, according to Steele, sits at the edge of El Salvador’s Monseñor Oscar Arnufolo Romero International airport (named for an archbishop assassinated in 1980).
Among the airlines Steele mentioned specifically as using this repair site are US Airways (which now owns American Airlines), Southwest, Jet Blue “and many smaller American carriers.”
The work done at these places is basically the disassembly of the aircraft’s wings, engines, interior and tail section, among other parts, to check for wear and tear, malfunctions and other problems.
The mechanics then put the craft back together exactly as it was before the tear-down began, “at least in theory,” Steele wrote.
The Federal Aviation Administration is the agency charged with overseeing all this, monitoring the work and certifying the mechanics. But Steele reported that at the El Salvador repair site, only one mechanic in eight is FAA-certified. At United Airlines’ major-overhaul facility in China, he wrote, only one mechanic in 31 is FAA-certified.
And while the FAA supposedly has certified the competency of 737 repair sites around the world, the fact is the FAA is a U.S. agency separated by vast distances, governmental red tape and other impediments to the agency’s ability to do its job, not to mention the fact that the FAA itself has seen its budgets slashed and its personnel reduced.
Getting the picture?
Steele reported that planes have been sent back into service with parts missing, and in one case the entire airplane’s skin had been refinished with a highly flammable paint.
An Air France plane, also serviced in China, reportedly was forced to land on its first flight after service when its toilets overflowed and two of its high-frequency radios quit working.
Steele wrote that nobody is analyzing how all this affects the airworthiness of the planes, although I hope that changes now that the issue is out in the open.
Meanwhile, when I climb on that United Airlines plane tomorrow to fly to Wisconsin, I’m going to be one nervous passenger.
For years, I would get supremely drunk before I got on a plane, on the theory that if it crashed I would be drunk enough to be either asleep or beyond caring.
I stopped doing that a while back, but I’m thinking it might be time to renew my acquaintance with an unhealthy but mind-numbing amount of Scotch before I fly.
Just in case.