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Is Outsourcing Aircraft Maintenance Really Such a Good Idea?

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Australia's Courier-Mail reports that green caterpillars living inside the pressure-sensitive cockpit instruments of a 20-seat aircraft recently forced the plane down after experiencing equipment problems.

The plane turned around and landed safely at Brisbane Airport, but the accident will not be investigated for financial reasons.

"We're only resourced to undertake so many investigations a year," said a spokesperson for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Lack of funds have led to concerns in the Australian aviation community in the past. Qantas jets have a 100% safety record -- but a few near-misses over the past 12 months or so have raised questions about the airline’s increasing practice of outsourcing maintenance to foreign countries.

In November, Chris Nassenstein, the executive manager of Qantas engineering, said of the company’s maintenance structure, “…on the engine side, it is almost entirely outsourced. In the component business, it depends on the aircraft. We have more and more [outsourced] on newer aircraft types. At the moment, almost all of the components on the A380 are outsourced.”

Steve Purvinas of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association believes this is a contributing factor to a steepening decline in safety.

“The dramatic increase in the number of safety incidents involving Qantas jets coincides with an increase in the amount of work that is no longer carried out in-house. We have seen some pretty horrid results of maintenance from the overseas facilities - things that aren't reported in the press.”

Purvinas points to a Boeing 747 that, upon returning from a maintenance check in Hong Kong last year, flew for an entire month before anyone realized three of the aircraft’s engines were not bolted to the wings correctly.

“In the last 10 years, Qantas has shut down every in-house engine shop in Australia,” Purvinas added. “It is little wonder safety standards are dropping.”

But, lowered safety standards are not an exclusively Australian phenomenon. The major US carriers have been offshoring maintenance for years in an attempt to cut costs and increase profits in an increasingly difficult economic environment.

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.

In January of last year, a US Airways flight between Omaha and Phoenix made an emergency landing in Denver after the pressure seal around the main cabin door failed.

An investigation by NPR found that the Aeroman repair facility in El Salvador, which had maintained the plane, had installed a component backwards, which was directly responsible for the potential catastrophe.

NPR also reported that “the mechanics were paid between $5,000 and $10,000 per year, and some did not speak English, making the reading of the aircraft repair manual impossible.”

An October 26 article in Flightglobal magazine, ST Aerospace president Chang Cheow Teck, said, “Aircraft operators will require a certain minimum maintenance volume to cover the cost before in-house maintenance is a viable option. We expect outsourcing to grow corresponding to the cost pressures felt by airlines as a result of intensifying competition.”

“The cost for us to do anything other than the work we perform today would be enormous," said JetBlue vice-president of technical operations Dave Ramage. “Engine maintenance is an enormous cost and quite frankly we couldn't make the business case and we don't have the critical mass.”

Louie Key, National Director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Organization, says, “The bottom line is the airlines ship jobs to repair stations because labor is cheaper. It’s cheaper because foreign shops are cutting corners with employees. That’s putting people at risk and keeping those jobs overseas.”

Case in point -- last March, United signed a five-year deal with Ameco Beijing to service its entire fleet of 747s and 777s.

Is this really a chance airlines should be taking when faulty aircraft maintenance is the number two cause of accidents?

Just something to ask yourself next time your flight hits turbulence.
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