June 26, 2007

Outsourced Repair for Planes: Safe?

The American system of aviation is safest of the world, partly due to the quality of the systems of the repair and the maintenance that help to keep those Jumbos in stop. But a number of increase of critical worries that this long file of security is in danger.

That is because systems of the repair and the maintenance and the Federal Aviation Administration, that is responsible to examine them, are both in means of historical transformations.

A record amount of work is being outsourced to foreign and non-FAA-certified repair stations. At the same time, the FAA has a decreasing number of inspectors, forcing it to rely more on computer models instead of looking over mechanics' shoulders to check their work.

Depending on where one sits, the result is either an increasingly dangerous set of conditions or a triumph of the efficiencies of global economics and emerging technology.

The controversy, which includes concerns about possible terrorist infiltration of foreign repair stations, has prompted two federal investigations and hearings on Capitol Hill.

"If the American people understood some of the safety and security issues surrounding foreign repair stations, they would march on Washington with pitchforks," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri said during a hearing last week.

The nation's airlines have long outsourced some minor maintenance. The trend picked up during the 1990 and accelerated with the airlines' economic crisis that started in the spring of 2001 and continued after 9/11.

"Safety is the constant, overriding imperative in our members' activities," said Basil Barimo of Air Transport Association, which represents major US carriers, during last week's hearing. "The airlines understand their responsibilities, and they act accordingly. The US airline industry's stellar - and improving - safety record demonstrates that indisputable commitment."

Or as Les Dorr, a spokesman for the FAA says: "Just because work is being done at a foreign repair facility does not mean it's unsafe at all - in fact, sometimes 180 degrees the opposite."

FAA management and the airlines note there are layers of redundancy to ensure safety. For example, in addition to the FAA-certified mechanics, the airlines' own mechanics check work when planes are returned. But during the hearing, Mr. Roach of the mechanics union said that what his members find sometimes is frightening.

"Our members have also seen aircraft return from repair facilities with the flaps rigged improperly, engine fan blades installed backwards, improperly connected ducting ... and over-wing-exit emergency slides deactivated," he says. "These aircraft had all been deemed airworthy by the repair stations."

The union that represents the FAA inspectors has also raised alarms. They contend the FAA has not given them the resources to properly oversee all the work that's now been shifted overseas or to private facilities in the US. In addition, within the next five years, 50 percent of the current inspectors will be eligible for retirement.

To improve safety, the FAA has started relying more on data analysis to identify potential problems that can be inspected selectively. Some stations, however, go for months or years without proper oversight.

That, say inspectors, has put them in a difficult position. "Assuming good intent on everyone's part, things still happen.... It's just a matter of time," says Tom Brantley, president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialist, which represents FAA inspectors.

Read the news release of this article's at Aircraft Maintenance Technology by Alexandra Marks Staff writer of The Christian Science MonitorChristian Science Monitor

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