FAA Must Improve Oversight Planes
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Federal Aviation Administration does not adequately oversee the growing number of outside contractors repairing airplanes, the Transportation Department's inspector general said in a report released Thursday.
At 18 of 21 repair stations checked by government investigators, contract mechanics used incorrect aircraft parts and improperly calibrated tools, and had outdated manuals.
"The vulnerabilities all relate to a lack of effective FAA oversight that needs to be improved," the report said.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said the agency agrees with the findings. However, she stressed the report does not say passengers are in any danger.
"There's no data to support a safety issue," she said.
US Airways used an outside contractor to maintain the commuter plane that crashed on takeoff at North Carolina's Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in January, killing all 21 aboard.
The ongoing investigation that followed found a mechanic improperly set turnbuckles, which control tension on elevator control cables. If a cable is too slack, the pilot does not have full control of the elevator, a tail flap that moves up and down and causes the plane to climb or dive.
The inspector general began the investigation of maintenance outsourcing a year before the crash, but the Charlotte accident investigation findings have intensified calls for the FAA to increase its oversight.
The inspector general noted that major airlines, struggling to survive, are looking to trim costs by outsourcing maintenance.
Plane repairs taken apart
DOT: Outsourcing needs monitoring
Denver Post - Airlines are contracting out more aircraft maintenance to cut costs, but a new federal study finds there is little government oversight of such work.
The U.S. Department of Transportation criticized the Federal Aviation Administration this week for neglecting to inspect third-party repair stations, which perform nearly half of all U.S. commercial airline maintenance.
"Despite the increase in air carriers' use of these facilities, FAA has continued to concentrate its resources on oversight of air carriers' in-house maintenance operations," said the report by the department's inspector general.
The study found that the agency conducted only about 3 percent of its inspections in fiscal 2002 at repair stations operated by contractors, though airlines outsourced 47 percent of their maintenance. That was up from 38 percent five years earlier.
The report comes as United Airlines, the dominant carrier at Denver International Airport, and other carriers slash their costs by sending more work to the repair centers.
Critics - including many airline mechanics, some air-safety experts and the union representing FAA inspectors - say lax oversight of repair stations in the United States and abroad poses a growing safety issue for American travelers. A US Airways Express crash in January is thought to have stemmed from repair by contract mechanics.
But airlines and other proponents of maintenance outsourcing say the quality of the work is equal to or better than that performed in-house, and is a necessary cost-reduction tool for the financially ailing industry.
"Successful low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines have outsourced their maintenance business for years and they've done so on a successful basis," said Bruce Strand, a Lakewood-based airline-operations consultant. "These companies are overseen by the FAA and the carriers themselves. In fact, they have an added level of regulation the carriers don't."
Strand predicts that more than 60 percent of U.S. airline repair work will be done by contractors next year.
United, operating in bankruptcy since December, gained considerable opportunity to outsource aircraft maintenance work after negotiating a new contract with the International Association of Machinists, which represents its 10,000 mechanics.
The contract saves United $350 million a year, including at least $75 million through outsourcing. United spent about $2 billion on maintenance last year.
According to the DOT, United outsourced $304 million of its maintenance work in 2002. That was less as a percentage of total maintenance expenses than any other major carrier. (The DOT's total repair-cost figures aren't comparable with airlines' own numbers because they don't include all maintenance expenses.)
United's new mechanics' contract allows the airline to outsource all of its heavy maintenance and up to 20 percent of other repair work, compared with a previous limit of 20 percent for all maintenance.
Denver-based Frontier Airlines outsources 15-20 percent of its maintenance work, said spokesman Joe Hodas.
United is moving quickly. The company recently shut its Indianapolis and Oakland, Calif., maintenance centers and reached broad new agreements with Timco Aviation Services and ST Mobile Aerospace Engineering, two of the world's largest aircraft-repair firms. The companies will overhaul 150 of United's 520 planes this year.
"Our outsourcing program is absolutely safe because the contractors have to be in compliance with an FAA-approved maintenance plan," said United spokesman Jeff Green. "There is continuous oversight in our maintenance plan."
United sends its own supervisors to oversee off-site maintenance work and the machinists' union also sends its own representatives.
In its report, the DOT instructed the FAA to devote more resources to inspecting repair stations, and the agency agreed.
I'm glad to see that the Inspector General is giving this set of issues needed attention. I find the FAA's statements troubling. It seems that whenever the industry is criticized, the FAA springs to its defense. "Yes there's a problem, but there is no danger." If there is no danger, what's the problem?
The United spokesman says, "Our outsourcing program is absolutely safe because the contractors have to be in compliance with an FAA-approved maintenance plan, ...". This statement is so ridiculous it's almost funny. FAA regulations require that maintenance shops have maintenance plans, but the scrutiny involved in reviewing them is nil and compliance is usually unaudited.
I guess what really bothers me is that both the regulators and regulatees agree that there is no problem when every outside agency that looks into the situation thinks there is.
Foreign regulation muddles FAA's job
By Marilyn Adams, USA TODAY
Federal safety inspectors who rely on other countries to oversee foreign maintenance contractors used by U.S. airlines sometimes get back inspection reports in another language or garbled English, according to a new Department of Transportation report.
The language barrier makes it impossible for FAA inspectors depending on foreign aviation officials to check aircraft repair stations in those countries to determine whether they are safe. (Related story: FAA maintenance oversight criticized)
That's just one of numerous lapses identified Thursday by the DOT's review of the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of maintenance contractors, called repair stations.
Auditors from the DOT Office of Inspector General also found that FAA inspectors spend as little as 20 minutes, or just a few hours, reviewing whether repair stations are meeting standards.
"We found no indication that FAA has taken action to adjust its surveillance activities to more closely monitor air carriers' use of these facilities," the report said. "In fact, we found that FAA has no mechanism in place to obtain information on how much work is outsourced, domestically or overseas."
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said Thursday that the agency agrees with the major findings in the report. She said the agency is committed to stepping up surveillance of repair stations. But she said the current system is safe.
"You will not find in the report any data or indications that there is anything unsafe," Blakey said.
The report said some of the FAA weaknesses identified by investigators and watchdog reports after a ValuJet crash in 1996 ï¿½ blamed on faulty work by a now-defunct contractor ï¿½ remain. It noted that inspectors assigned to oversee repair stations maintaining passenger airlines are still expected to juggle oversight of less-critical areas: maintenance and flight schools, helicopter and general-aviation operators, and other duties.
The report says FAA oversight is lacking in other ways:
ï¿½ The FAA inspectors overseeing maintenance done by airlines themselves and those overseeing work by repair stations hired by airlines don't routinely share information.
ï¿½ FAA inspectors responsible for overseeing foreign repair stations are typically unable to conduct unannounced inspections. Mechanics at foreign repair stations aren't required to undergo drug, alcohol and security-background checks, which are required of mechanics in the USA.
ï¿½ Where the FAA lets foreign governments oversee foreign contractors fixing U.S. planes, the oversight sometimes is ineffective. Inspections by foreign aviation officials aren't necessarily in comprehensible English, and there are few FAA inspectors fluent in the language of the country they oversee.
Contributing: Alan Levin
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