Focus on terrorism may obscure other airline safety threats

For six years, most Americans have viewed airline safety through the prism of security and the threat of terrorism. But terrorists don't pose the only threat to this country's exemplary aviation safety record.

I spent most of 2006 investigating airline safety on behalf of Consumer Reports magazine. After nine months, I came to believe the greatest long-term threat to U.S. airline passengers stems not from terrorism, but the outsourcing of critical maintenance work to third-party vendors both here and abroad. The result of that work—"An Accident Waiting to Happen?"—was published in the March 2007 issue of Consumer Reports (available to subscribers at www.consumerreports.org/cro/travel/index.htm).

We found that even though domestic airlines have dramatically increased their use of outsourced maintenance facilities, there are critical regulatory differences between repair shops run by airlines and those by outside vendors, even within the U.S. Experts also told us there's a correlation between outsourced maintenance and airline-induced flight delays. Further, we quoted front-line Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) maintenance inspectors concerned about their inability to conduct timely inspections, and airline mechanics concerned about shoddy work done overseas. I also spoke to the parents of a young woman killed on an Air Midwest/US Airways Express flight in 2003, in a crash that was attributed to improper servicing by an outside maintenance vendor.

Questions about the FAA's oversight have been growing for years. Back in 1996, in the wake of the fatal ValuJet 592 and TWA 800 crashes, Donald F. Kettl, a non-resident senior fellow for Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote about the "subtle pressures" faced by the FAA: "First, in an era where government's critics believe the only good regulation is a dead regulation, the FAA has been hard pressed to minimize its intrusiveness into the airline industry. Second, faced with fast growing start-up airlines and old airlines under tough cost pressures, the FAA has strained to cope with vast changes in the way the industry operates."

Eleven years later, those words are nothing less than prophetic. Shortly after the Consumer Reports article was published, the House Subcommittee on Aviation held hearings on outsourced maintenance facilities and then the Senate did the same. In testimony before the Senate in June(www.oig.dot.gov/item.jsp?id=2068), Calvin Scovel, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, noted the percentage of outsourced maintenance dollars for domestic airlines increased from 37% to 64% between 1996 and 2006, and the number of foreign facilities servicing U.S. carriers increased from 344 to 698 over the last 13 years. Of greater concern, Scovel also stated, "[We] have identified challenges in FAA's ability to effectively monitor the increase in outsourcing."

Other problems remain

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