Continental could face penalties over repairs
(USA TODAY) - Continental Airlines is facing possible sanctions from the
Federal Aviation Administration for aircraft repair work done by a small
Miami contractor after a whistle-blower alerted the FAA.
FAA records obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request say safety
inspectors have recommended a penalty for Continental in connection with its
use of Miami Tech Line Maintenance, but the nature of the violation and
their recommendations are unknown. FAA lawyers are reviewing the case, which
could end with no action, a warning or a fine. FAA declined comment.
However, the records also show two of the firm's employees ï¿½ one is its
senior mechanic and part-owner ï¿½ have received three formal FAA warnings
since August for improper work done for Continental. The contractor has made
routine repairs for Continental at Miami airport for 18 months.
Miami Tech is not federally licensed to repair planes, which makes the case
potentially sensitive for Continental and the FAA. The government does not
track unlicensed maintenance firms. They receive no FAA visits unless
there's a complaint or accident. They aren't required to meet federal
licensing standards for training or have a quality-control staff.
The FAA allows airlines to use unlicensed contractors if the firm's
mechanics are licensed and the airlines provide adequate supervision. The
FAA's review of Miami Tech comes as airlines are outsourcing more aircraft
maintenance than ever, and safety watchdogs inside and outside the
government question whether work by licensed maintenance firms gets enough
oversight from carriers or the FAA.
Continental says its Houston headquarters directs the contractor's work at
Miami, where it operates 80 flights a week. Spokesman David Messing says the
airline doesn't believe the error in the case posed any risk.
"Our Miami maintenance program is sound," he says.
But Nick Lacey, a former FAA official in charge of maintenance oversight,
says he's surprised major airlines are using unlicensed firms like Miami
Tech, which also does on-call maintenance for Northwest and United.
"This kind of outsourcing works only if the airline is able to provide
adequate quality assurance and the FAA provides adequate oversight," says
Lacey, now an Arlington, Va.-based aviation consultant.
The FAA isn't staffed or organized well to oversee outsourced maintenance
for airlines at airports where they have relatively few flights, he says.
Jose Cruz, Miami Tech's part-owner and its licensed senior mechanic,
declined to comment.
In August, Cruz personally drew a warning for improperly deferring
maintenance on a Continental jet's autopilot system. In September, the FAA
warned him about work done on six Continental jets without correctly
documenting it or following maintenance manual requirements. In a letter to
the FAA included in the records USA TODAY received, Cruz said he had
followed instructions "from maintenance control in Houston."
In August, another Miami Tech mechanic was reprimanded for allowing a
Continental jet to wander onto an active runway during a towing operation
earlier this year. The mechanic, who was in the cockpit at the time, was not
trained or authorized to be there, the FAA notice says.
Messing says the warnings "don't indicate a lack of coordination between the
airline and (Miami Tech) and don't suggest that use of qualified contract
maintenance is ineffective or unsafe."
By issuing warning letters, FAA officials signaled they did not consider the
violations among the most serious a mechanic can commit. The FAA can suspend
or revoke a mechanic's license for infractions it deems most serious.
The FAA has been investigating Miami Tech's work for Continental since at
least early this year. The whistle-blower who complained about Miami Tech's
work to the FAA, and later to USA TODAY, is not identified in the records
the FAA provided.
Continental in October tapped Delta Air Lines as its primary maintenance
supplier in Miami, demoting Miami Tech to backup.
Continental uses its own mechanics at night, relying on the contract
mechanics for daytime repairs. The airline can't justify the cost of
employing a 24-hour staff in Miami because there isn't enough work, Messing
says. During the day, its Miami pilots report equipment problems to
headquarters, which calls the contractor.
Airlines are outsourcing more maintenance work to cut costs amid the
industry's worst downturn. This year, half or more of all maintenance
spending by the 10 largest passenger airlines is expected to be outsourced.
According to data from the Department of Transportation, Continental
outsourced 65% of its aircraft maintenance spending last year, more than
most other major airlines. http://www.usatoday.com/travel/news/2003-12-14-continental_x.htm
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