Time to start listening!
A quiet but significant change has taken place in the last decade. Airlines have figured out, in large part, how to restore profitability to their operations.
The formula for gaining profitability appears to be two-fold: cut expenses and increase revenue.
A large part of the cost-cutting formula involves maintenance. It’s no secret that airlines have transitioned to less expensive ways to maintain their aircraft — and many of them accomplished this by bidding out (outsourcing) maintenance work to huge maintenance facilities inside and outside the country. In fact, there has been a sea of change in that there is little to no heavy maintenance performed in-house by the airlines today.
Not that outsourcing shouldn’t work. The consolidation of maintenance tasks under one roof by a well-trained group that performs repetitive tasks in an efficient manner seems to make sense financially. But some disturbing signs that “all is not what it seems” have recently surfaced.
In a recent report by the public television show “Frontline,” an investigative reporter decided to look into allegations that the airlines were “cutting corners” on maintenance. Throughout the show, there was a reasonably good attempt at providing balanced commentary from different factions of the industry to include labor unions (who have been impacted heavily by outsourcing), MRO facilities and the airlines themselves.
While viewing the report, I began to feel quite disturbed at the implications. I’m not sure if it was the method of reporting or the lack of cooperation of the MRO facilities that bothered me more. The reporter arranged to visit a facility in Beijing, China; then, just as he was about to visit, he was denied access to the facility. In another attempt to visit ST Aerospace in Mobile, Ala., he was again denied the opportunity to view the facility. They would not even grant an interview outside the facility!
On Feb. 7, 2011, the Teamsters and TWU Labor Alliance issued a news release applauding the report done by “Frontline.” They made it a point to refer to recent FAA violations that were issued by the FAA Against ST Aerospace. These violations were related to pre-employment drug testing and resulted in more than $1 million in fines.
Although fines can be an indication that there are problems at a maintenance facility, they are by no means conclusive. Many fines are appealed and most airlines, including those that employ labor unions, have been issued fines at one time or another.
While I’ll reserve judgment on the ability of off-site MROs to produce quality work within FAA guidelines, I do question any facility that finds a need to “hide” their maintenance practices and/or facilities from the general public. Yet, in fairness to ST, we don’t really know the reason they didn’t allow “Frontline” access or grant the reporter an interview. Perhaps there was a very palatable explanation?
Unfortunately, the result of not opening the facility to the public, and not speaking with “Frontline” would seem to put ST — and perhaps the industry as a whole — in a bad light.
I believe that if a facility is not proud to demonstrate its proficiency to the general public, and if an airline is not ready to fully defend its decision to outsource to lower cost facilities, they shouldn’t expect the general public to trust that their aircraft maintenance procedures are safe.
What do you think?
Greg Napert, Proud to be an A&P
P.S. If you missed it, you can view the “Frontline” report online at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/flying-cheaper/.