Two-Way Traffic In Airplane Repair
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. aviation industry has slumped, forcing carriers to reduce costs and lay off thousands of workers. As part of their belt-tightening, airlines have shut down huge maintenance facilities in cities such as Oakland and Indianapolis and reconfigured hangars at Minneapolis-St. Paul. Employees who managed to keep their jobs were forced to take pay cuts -- in some cases, several times.
Airlines such as Northwest and Continental and the delivery companies FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. outsource to Asia so-called heavy checks, which are required when planes reach a certain age. The heavy checks are more labor-intensive because they require an entire strip-down of the aircraft and repair or replacement of major components, such as the fuselage. Lower pay in Asia makes the work more affordable for the airlines.
"They have no intentions of bringing that heavy work back in," said Jim Atkinson, president of AMFA Local 33 at Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis. "It's very disturbing for me that hundreds of millions of dollars are supporting China and Singapore's economy."
More than half of all maintenance work for U.S. airlines is now performed by contractors -- foreign and domestic -- and that figure is projected to grow to 60 percent by 2008, according to aviation analysis firm Back Aviation Solutions.
Just how much of that work is contracted to firms overseas is difficult to quantify because the Federal Aviation Administration does not track such numbers and the companies that conduct the repairs are reluctant, for competitive reasons, to reveal their customers. Unions also could not provide figures of exactly how many jobs have gone overseas.
American, United, US Airways and Delta said they do not sent any maintenance work overseas, except for quick overnight repairs. Those carriers are restricted by new pay-slashing contracts from sending jobs overseas.
"Typically, U.S. carriers will tend to keep their outsourcing in North America for obvious reasons," said Steve Casley, principal of Back Aviation. "You want to reduce the amount of transportation costs to have the work done."
Union officials claim that aircraft that undergo maintenance overseas are exposed to a potential safety and security risk. They argue that the United States has less oversight over foreign workers and that planes could be exposed to sloppy work or sabotage overseas.
For example, airline maintenance workers in other countries do not have to undergo mandatory drug and alcohol testing or criminal background checks as they do in the United States. "There is a double standard for airline maintenance," said Ed Wytkind, president of transportation trades at the AFL-CIO. "You can't create a fortress-like security in the U.S. but lose those standards overseas."
Continental, which has maintenance performed in Hong Kong and Canada, keeps its own employees on site overseas, spokeswoman Julie King said. "We have our own airline quality control and quality assurance representatives that oversee the maintenance, and our quality assurance regularly conducts audits of our suppliers," King said. "It's a very comprehensive procedure."
The FAA said it recently tightened rules to keep better track of third-party maintenance contractors in the United States and overseas, but the United States has difficulty requiring workers in other countries to undergo certain measures such as drug and alcohol tests.
"We can't go against the sovereignty of another country," said the FAA's James J. Ballough, director of the flight standards service.
The FAA action came in response to a Department of Transportation inspector general report last year highlighting serious lapses in oversight of independent maintenance facilities in the United States and abroad. The report charged that the FAA did not have enough inspectors to conduct thorough observations of repair shops and that the agency focused too much on airline-owned stations instead of contract facilities, which are growing rapidly.
The Transportation Security Administration is expected to issue new rules in June to help ensure that overseas facilities are secure.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company