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As airlines contract out work, safety issues rise

For the first time, more than half of aviation repair work will be done this year by outside companies.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2003


The night before an Air Midwest commuter plane crashed last January, a mechanic-in-training at an independent repair station improperly adjusted a set of cables that control the pitch of the plane.

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That small error made it extremely difficult for the pilot to control the aircraft on takeoff. The National Transportation Safety Board found that to be a primary cause of the crash, which killed 21 people.

While any mechanic could make such an error, the fact that it was done by a contractor, instead of a certified, union airline employee, has helped revive concerns about the airline industry's outsourcing of repair work. It's a trend that started a decade ago, but has accelerated rapidly in the past two years as the major carriers have struggled to survive financially.

In 1992, the nation's 10 largest carriers outsourced just more than 30 percent of their repair work, according to a report by Back Aviation Solutions, an aviation consulting company. This year, for the first time, more than half of aviation repair and overhaul work will be done by lower-paid outside contractors. Some major carriers will outsource as much as 70 percent of their maintenance work.

That has raised alarms among union members and some safety experts, who contend that outside contract employees, who aren't necessarily certified, pose potential safety risks to the flying public.

Where the errors happen

It has also raised alarms at the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation. In a recent report, it found that 86 percent of the "discrepancies" it found went undetected at the repair stations where outsourced work is done in both the US and other countries.

Those discrepancies included the use of improper parts and equipment, improperly calibrated instruments, and "insufficient documentation that workers were properly qualified and trained to do repairs," according to the OIG's report.

But both the OIG and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) insist that this move toward outsourcing has not affected passenger safety. They note that in 2002, there was not a single commercial aviation fatality, making it one of the safest years in history. They also point out that there are many layers of redundancy, so that work done by repair stations is checked by certified mechanics and airline personnel.

Still, the government acknowledges it could do a better job of policing such repair work. As a result of the OIG's report, the FAA has committed to increasing its oversight and inspections of outsourced work. Many experts also argue that particularly in this safety- and security-sensitive environment, it's incumbent on the airlines themselves to ensure that there is more stringent oversight of the outsource repair process.

"As part of their commitment to safety, the airlines are going to have to increase their own oversight of the outsourcing process," says Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "It for their own well-being, both financially and safetywise."