Airline safety mustn't fall casualty to outsourcing
By Jim Hall Mon Sep 19, 8:06 AM ET
The six recent civil airline crashes around the world demonstrate that while preventing terrorist threats to air safety must remain a top priority, we cannot afford to neglect routine matters of maintenance, equipment and training that impact the safety of world travelers.
In reading about some of the accidents around the world, we might find some comfort in the fact that these kinds of things just don't happen here in the USA:
• 121 people drifted to their deaths in Greece when the plane lost cabin pressure.
• Planes crashed in Sicily and Venezuela, and questions were raised about the purity of the planes' fuel.
• An Air France Airbus skidded off the runway in Toronto and a Boeing 737 crashed in Peru, with a lack of wind-shear warning equipment raised as a possible contributing factor in both cases.
• In Indonesia, another Boeing 737 crashed into a crowded neighborhood, killing passengers and people on the ground.
After all, it has been nearly four years since the last large-scale crash in the USA - the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines flight in Queens, N.Y.
Beware of complacency
But allowing such comfort to turn into complacency is a recipe for disaster. We would do well to look at the six international accidents the past two months not as isolated incidents, but as the chance for Americans to turn a more critical eye toward our own safety procedures. We must make safety a priority by properly funding our oversight and putting real teeth into standards of accountability, or a system that has provided years of safe flying will be eroded.
In fact, this is an especially important time to examine the commitment to safety by the airline industry, by Congress and by the
Federal Aviation Administration. Before filing for bankruptcy protection last week, Northwest Airlines was embroiled in a mechanics strike in which the practice of outsourcing maintenance work was coming under intense public scrutiny for the first time. Northwest's mechanics opposed the company's plans to trim its payroll by outsourcing maintenance to third-party companies here and abroad.
Before the Northwest strike, how many Americans knew that most of our airlines are outsourcing maintenance to low-cost, third-party private contractors in the USA or to cheaper labor in other countries, including
El Salvador, Singapore and Hong Kong? Ten years ago, only about a third of maintenance work for U.S. airliners was performed by outside contractors - today that number has grown to just over 50% and is expected to rise to 60% by 2008.
Reason for concern
Americans have the right to ask questions about how this fundamental shift could affect safety. When decisions on maintenance and safety are being made with cost cutting in mind, how could we not be concerned? Don't get me wrong - outsourced labor does not automatically translate into shoddy work. Even so, there are reasons to be skeptical:
• The US Airways Express crash in Charlotte in 2003 was blamed in part on poor mechanical work performed by an undertrained employee of a private contractor.
• Maintenance workers in other countries aren't subject to mandatory drug and alcohol testing or background screening, as are mechanics in the USA.
• Increasingly, third-party and even in-house maintenance departments are operating under minimal FAA supervision. Budget cuts have dramatically decreased the number of FAA inspectors, in turn limiting the number of inspections. More than 300 field inspectors are expected to be trimmed from a staff of approximately 3,400 this year and next.
As airlines look for any available means to cut costs, outsourcing is likely here to stay. In this environment, Congress and the American people must demand that we maintain our investment in safety and enforce regulations across the board and around the world.
As the events surrounding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina remind us, our safety structures in this country are very fragile. We have had a safe civil aviation system here because we've invested in it. We must not forget that.