Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.
Somewhere on the ground in São Paulo, Brazil, an aircraft technician needed help. He was a man of about 40, posting a friendly inquiry onto LinkedIn this year with pictures of a metal sphere he didn’t recognize deep inside an American Airlines jet. He had no idea what it was.
“Hi everyone. This component is located on the Engine Rolls Royce Trent 800,” wrote the mechanic, in broken English, smiling in his profile picture next to an AA passenger plane. “Does someone could give me a technical information…? What is the function of that component ….? I searched long about it, and I did not find…”
This earnest message, sent by a technician proudly identifying himself as an American Airlines employee in Brazil, was received with alarm by his colleagues in the United States. If this foreign worker was unable to even identify the equipment in front of him, located on a Boeing 777 jet, how was he supposed to fix it?
It was more evidence of risks to passengers and crew as domestic air carriers increasingly use offshore repair centers in South America and Asia, where standards can be lower in crucial areas of safety, training, and worker competence. Crowdsourcing technical knowledge falls far short of what is required to keep these exceedingly complicated airplanes flying safely.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” John Samuelsen, president of the 150,000-member Transport Workers Union, told Capital & Main.
In 2003, according to TWU, only 7% of repair work was being done overseas. Now it is 30%. There are more than 900 foreign repair stations currently certified by the Federal Aviation Administration—including a new $100 million aircraft maintenance facility in São Paulo. American Airlines alone employs about 400 technicians on foreign soil.
“In South America or in China, the workers that they hire are not required to go through the same rigorous testing and certification,” said Samuelsen. “No criminal background checks, no random drug testing, no certification requirements that exist with the airline carriers in America.”
Samuelsen provided Capital & Main with TWU photographs, reports, and emails that document instances of what he described as unsound repairs, faulty wiring, and other stopgap measures that would never be allowed at a U.S. facility. According to a 2018 memo from TWU vice-president Gary Peterson, a Boeing 787 with a cracked high-pressure duct was serviced in Chile, then arrived in Chicago with the duct held together by tape and wire.
“This is a high-pressure duct that operates a valve critical for the safety of engine operations, which could have caused a catastrophic in-flight event,” the TWU email warned. “This type of item is no longer the exception but more the norm.”
Falling short of U.S. standards
A 2018 report prepared for TWU by the risk management firm Ridge Global (led by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge) found that offshore repair stations regularly fall short of U.S. standards on “levels of oversight, cultural views of safety and security, staffing practices and issuance and possession of FAA certifications for mechanics and technicians.” Budget constraints also limit the number of overseas inspections conducted by the FAA.
At the July 17 House aviation subcommittee hearing on safety in air travel, Capt. Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said: “Whenever we’ve had an aircraft come back from a foreign maintenance station, we’re always taking a good look. . . . They typically go to the lowest bidder, and I’ve always said this: Skilled labor’s not cheap, cheap labor’s not skilled. And you end up getting what you pay for.”
A new sense of urgency is pushing the airline safety issue in the aftermath of two crashes of Boeing 737 Max passenger jets in 2018 and 2019, killing more than 300 passengers and crew. The first panel of witnesses to address the committee were family members of those killed in the crashes, including Paul Njoroge, who lost his wife, children, and mother-in-law.
The day before the hearing, Boeing released another statement of apology and committed to “help with the healing process,” but Njoroge noted that while the company “apologized to the families in front of cameras,” the family members in need of healing had yet to hear those regrets in person.
A serious congressional response may be required as pressures increase at carriers to avoid drawing attention to the lapses. Rather than address safety issues, technicians have been warned “if they write up aircraft, the work will be moved outside the U.S. and the TWU stations will be nothing more than gas and gos,” according to an email circulated to union reps from TWU’s Peterson.
Overseas inspections limited to once a year
Airlines looking to increase profits aren’t the only forces aligned against the demands over safety issues. Nations that are home to lower-cost repair centers make up the largest lobbying group fighting aviation unions in Washington, D.C., said Greg Regan, secretary-treasurer at the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO. “They just don’t want to see any hindrance to their ability to get more work,” he added. “Frankly, if basic safety is a hindrance for them to get more work, then I don’t know that we should have our work being done there.”
Labor unions have succeeded in lobbying for the passage of federal laws to “level the playing field” with uniform requirements both here and abroad, Regan added, including background checks and drug and alcohol testing (on the books since 2012). But to their dismay, both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to act on enforcing these congressional mandates overseas.
“We think that’s just unconscionable and something that is a real safety risk for a heavy maintenance aircraft,” said Regan. TTD was one of four unions to sign a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging the current administration to act on congressionally mandated rules on “drug and alcohol testing, security screening for safety-sensitive personnel, and risk-based oversight at foreign aircraft repair stations.”
They are also looking for annual inspections at foreign repair stations to be done without advance notice. Currently, Regan said, repair stations are given up to 30 days’ warning before inspectors show up, allowing facilities to cover up any violations. “That’s not a real inspection,” Regan argued. “If that was the way food inspections worked in this country, we’d be outraged.”
A decade ago, the FAA still had inspectors based overseas to deal with certified foreign repair stations used by American carriers. After budget issues led the last of those international field offices to close in 2015, overseas inspections were limited to once a year, even as the number of foreign air technicians increase.
“That’s our biggest concern,” said Mike Perrone, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists. “We’ve been trying for a long time to get more than one yearly inspection, and we get shot down every year.”
For Perrone, air safety at home and abroad is a fixation that never fades, even as his wife asks why he keeps watching so many documentaries and grim news reports about passenger plane crashes from over the decades. “Our job is safety number one, making sure everything works,” said Perrone, whose union represents 11,000 FAA safety inspectors, systems specialists, and others. “I don’t want to ever wake up and read a newspaper or see on TV the folks that I represent caused the problem because we didn’t speak up. That’s probably the biggest thing: Our folks are pretty vocal.”