A government report found that certain maintenance facilities - including overseas centers - used by some carriers had not been inspected by the proper U.S. regulators.
John Hughes, Bloomberg News
Critical repair work for U.S. airlines has been assigned to outside maintenance centers, including overseas facilities, which haven't been inspected by U.S. regulators and sometimes make safety errors, a government inspector found.
The Federal Aviation Administration and six U.S. carriers didn't properly oversee work at the centers, Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said in a report Monday. The FAA hadn't inspected six of 10 centers that Mead's office visited, and errors were found, including improper maintenance on a switch that might have resulted in an engine failing to restart during flight, he said.
"Airlines contract out this maintenance work to save money, but with those savings we must ensure that there is not an erosion of the margins of safety," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. Oberstar had asked Mead to conduct the audit.
Airlines spend about $4.9 billion a year on maintenance, and a growing percentage of work -- now about half -- is done by outside companies. With three of the four largest U.S. carriers operating in bankruptcy, airlines are looking for ways to cut costs after seeing $40 billion in losses since 2000.
Carriers visited by Mead were American Airlines, Continental Airlines Inc., AirTran Holdings Inc., Frontier Airlines Inc., American Eagle and ExpressJet Holdings Inc. Mead didn't attach carrier names to examples he cited.
Mead focused his review on outside vendors that aren't certified by the FAA. Airlines are allowed to use such centers if the work is approved by a mechanic who does have FAA certification. The agency told Mead that the centers do only minor work, such as checking oil for contaminants.
"This is not true," Mead said. Six of the centers his staff visited did maintenance such as inspecting wings and replacing hydraulic valves, he said; 20 other facilities did critical work such as engine replacements.
Airlines are responsible for ensuring that work done at noncertified centers meets FAA-approved standards.
Mead said he found "significant shortcomings" in the training and oversight of noncertified centers at all six airlines he reviewed. Training ranged from a one-hour video to 11 hours of combined classroom and video study, he said. One carrier mailed a workbook to centers and asked mechanics to read it and fax back a form saying they had completed the study.
One carrier performed no oversight, while the other five did evaluations without reviewing work performed, he said. The carriers "relied primarily on telephone contact" to monitor maintenance, Mead said, "rather than on-site reviews."
Airline training for mechanics doing critical repairs at the centers "was particularly problematic," Mead said. Air carriers typically relied on telephone briefings, he said.
Centers in St. Thomas, Bermuda and El Salvador had never been visited by the FAA and were doing "critical repairs," such as replacing engine components, he said.