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Pressure in Washington to Reduce Foreign Maintenance Outsourcing

A gathering in Washington largely hyped for less U.S. airline maintenance outsourcing, saying FAA cannot adequately control foreign shops.

With Democrats controlling the U.S. House of Representatives and a Republican president not in love with free trade, it is no surprise that protectionist winds are blowing in Washington.  And there have always been legitimate national security and safety exceptions to free-trade theory.

On the last ground, safety, most participants in the Aircraft Maintenance Outsourcing Summit held June 4 in Washington urged stronger pressures to limit U.S. airlines’ outsourcing of maintenance to foreign repair stations. The summit was held to justify and publicize potential legislation that would discourage airlines from outsourcing to foreign repair stations.

Although they involved a U.S. OEM, not a foreign repair station, the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes were frequently cited as reasons to limit outsourcing MRO to foreigners.

For example, consumer advocate Ralph Nader told the summit attendees that he lost a grandniece in a MAX crash and argued the MAX should be permanently grounded because its heavier engines make the aircraft aerodynamically unstable. Then Nader said the two MAX accidents proved FAA had been too corrupted by the companies it regulates to be trusted to guarantee the safety of foreign repair stations. Nor can Congress be trusted to reform FAA or aviation because members have been corrupted by OEM campaign contributions and free perks from airlines, in Nader’s view. The consumerist thus supported publicizing foreign outsourcing and relying on consumers to deter the practice.

Following that argument, Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) will soon introduce legislation requiring U.S. airlines to disclose the amount of aircraft maintenance done in foreign shops, hoping passengers will discourage the practice.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, complained there has been a trend among airlines to outsource line maintenance, for which there are not the supervisory checks applicable to heavy checks. Mitchell says FAA’s regulatory reputation has been marred by its approval of the Boeing 737 MAX, and the Department of Transportation’s Form 41 data on airline outsourced maintenance spending is not always reliable.

Consumer advocate and journalist William McGee asked for Department of Homeland Security analysis of the security of foreign repair stations, wondered whether non-English-speaking mechanics can match U.S. best practices and whether foreign inspectors are as good as U.S. inspectors. McGee wants security, background checks and drug and alcohol tests of foreign mechanics. And he wants foreign shops to have the same ratio of certified-to-non-certified mechanics as do U.S. shops.

A panel of union representatives and others made more specific arguments about outsourcing to foreign maintenance shops.

Michael Gonzales, vice president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, argued that the FAA cannot adequately inspect shops in China, Asia and Europe as the agency no longer has field offices there. Moreover, FAA cannot do no-notice inspections in other countries, as it can in the U.S. 

Gary Peterson, vice president of the Transport Workers Union International, complained about the lack of data for who is touching avionics, a vulnerable point for cybersecurity, in foreign repair stations. Peterson said some foreign shops had up to 20 non-certified mechanics for every certified one, versus a two-to-one ratio in the United States. And he said many of the non-certified mechanics did line work, not subject to secondary checks.

Bret Oestereich, national director of the Aircraft Mechanic Fraternal Association, said the lack of a cap on the ratio of non-certified to certified mechanics in foreign shops is an important safety gap. Oestereich argued that all work on safety-sensitive components such as landing gear and engines should be done by certified mechanics, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Loretta Alkalay, a former FAA official who is now professor at the Vaughn College of Aeronautics, said there are impediments to FAA inspections of foreign stations. FAA cannot subpoena shop records, as it can in the U.S. It cannot pull certificates of mechanics who do not possess certificates in the first place, and it cannot enforce civil penalties in foreign lands. Alkalay said there has been a lot of falsified data from shops, some submitted with criminal intent rather than accidentally. Alkalay reported that a whistle-blower from a foreign OEM never even had an FAA investigation of his story.

John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he was most concerned about foreign stations doing heavy checks and the FAA’s lack of control over who inspects and signs off on work. He said U.S. shop staff can often tell which foreign shop did a heavy check by how many discrepancies are discovered after the check. He complained that this discrepancy data is not publically available.

Sarah MacLeod, executive director of the U.S.’s Aeronautical Repair Station Association, dissented from the general gloom. She noted that both U.S. and foreign carriers must have certified repair stations in each other’s territory simply to do line and emergency maintenance, so the question is not whether maintenance will be outsourced abroad but how it will be done. U.S. airlines might be prohibited by law or discouraged by public pressure from outsourcing heavy checks abroad, but they would still have line work done overseas, and this is the work least subject to supervisory checks.

Some other countries, especially in Europe, have “as strong, if not stronger” maintenance requirements than the U.S., MacLeod noted. All shops, U.S. and foreign, must train mechanics to do their particular jobs, whether they are certificated or non-certificated.

The ARSA exec summarized by arguing that the U.S. is probably not going to limit outsourcing to foreign stations, so the question ought to be how to handle it better. She questioned whether merely publicizing foreign outsourcing would pressure airlines to do it. “Passengers are fickle. If that doesn’t work, what is your fallback,” she asked.

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