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Arabic Graffiti Found "Chemically Etched" on Southwest Jets

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ABC15 in Phoenix has obtained an internal Southwest Airlines memo advising employees of "unauthorized markings," "symbols or words," that have been appearing, most commonly, "on the engine and/or landing gear” of an unspecified portion of its all-Boeing 737 fleet.

Southwest has confirmed that federal investigators are now involved, but would not comment on what the words or messages say, which are reported to have "been etched using a chemical process" and are "visible only after an auxiliary power unit is turned on."

"This has been going on for several months," a Southwest spokesperson said in a statement. "We continue to track the impacted fleet, logging when and where the vandalism is taking place."

ABC15 cites "multiple sources, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the company" who say that "the markings appear to be Arabic words."

The sources also "believe the markings are being done by an employee or group of employees joking around." And Southwest Executive Vice President Mike Van de Ven is asking employees to help "stop this and to report those responsible ... involved in marking or tagging our aircraft."

However, the age of outsourcing could make identifying those responsible quite a bit more difficult than usual.

A 2008 audit by the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General identified nine carriers -- Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Southwest, United, AirTran, Alaska Airlines, America West, and Northwest -- that outsourced 71% of their heavy airframe maintenance checks in 2007. About 27% of these heavy airframe repairs were outsourced overseas. Drilling down a bit deeper, approximately 20% of airplanes are being maintained in developing countries.

A Transport Workers Union report [PDF] released this past April expresses alarm at the increasing amount of maintenance and repair work being performed on U.S airliners "in overseas maintenance facilities, including locations such as China, El Salvador, Mexico, Singapore and Chile."

From the report:

At Southwest, the most profitable airline of major passenger carriers, the outsourcing problem persists. Work restricted under an earlier agreement negotiated by a predecessor Union to only North American facilities is now being sent to Aeroman in El Salvador.

Okay, but surely the mechanics in El Salvador aren't any less capable than mechanics in the U.S., right? A plane's a plane. Except when the maintenance manuals are in English -- and you only speak Spanish.

Again, from the TWU:

Large numbers of employees at these foreign facilities do not speak English. This wouldn’t be a problem except the international language of aviation is English. Many of these foreign facilities do not translate the maintenance manuals and paperwork into the workers’ native language, but instead require one of the FAA licensed mechanics to translate.

Well, certainly the translations are accurate, no? These are passenger jets -- it's not like these guys are changing sparkplugs.

In fact, a 2009 investigation by NPR singled out Aeroman as a facility with particularly lax operating standards.

Here's what the law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman had to say:

One foreign shop, in particular, became the focus of NPR’s report on the industry’s growing trend of outsourcing maintenance. That particular facility is Aeroman repair station in El Salvador which made a mistake that could have potentially been catastrophic. In January 2009, a US Airways jet traveling from Omaha to Phoenix was forced to land in Denver after the pressure seal around the main cabin door started to fail. It was later discovered that the mechanics at Aeroman had installed an important door component backwards.

In another case at Aeroman, a mechanic crossed the wires connecting the gauges to a plane’s engines, a potentially catastrophic mistake that was thankfully caught by an airline employee before the plane left with passengers. According to records obtained by NPR, this was not the first instance of problems with wire connectors. In late September of 2009, US Airways discovered another wire mix-up caused by mechanics at Aeroman. Thankfully these mishaps were caught, and no one was hurt.

NPR also interviewed mechanics at the Aeroman repair shop who declared their own concerns regarding safety there. According to the mechanics, there is often a great deal of pressure to repair planes quickly, even if safety is sacrificed. They confessed that some employees stored glues at temperatures different than those required by law, which means that the glues could fail, potentially causing parts of the airplane to quite literally fall apart.

When asked about FAA inspections, the mechanics revealed that the inspections are pre-announced so management has time to prepare for the inspection and the FAA inspectors find nothing wrong.

None of this seemed to disturb David Seymour, vice president in charge of maintenance at US Airways, who told NPR that, after visiting Aeroman, he was "very impressed with the facility."

As for Southwest and the case of the mysterious Arabic graffiti? Perhaps it's an employee "joking around." Or maybe the Al Qaeda member caught working at a Singapore maintenance facility that services Northwest aircraft finally landed a new gig.
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