Southwest Airlines Begins Foreign Outsourcing Once Again
I wanted to let all AMFA members, Southwest Airlines flight crews, and most importantly the flying public know something that occurred this week. On October 14, Southwest Airlines (SWA) flew an empty aircraft to San Salvador at El Salvador International Airport in order to accomplish a heavy maintenance check on that aircraft. A heavy maintenance check is the most labor-intensive check performed on an aircraft during its flying life.
Southwest Airlines did this even though it employs more than 2,000 FAA-certificated Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics, educated and well trained on the Boeing 737, the only aircraft SWA operates. They did this even though the Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) business in the United States is considered the best in the world with over 80 Class 4 Airframe facilities listed on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) website that employ thousands of qualified mechanics. SWA did this for one simple reason: profit through the use of cheap foreign labor.
AMFA has addressed this topic numerous times and recognized the double standards associated with comparison of the domestic repair stations vs foreign repair stations. For example, foreign repair stations typically do not require background checks or drug and alcohol testing. In addition, there are precious few certificated mechanics (163 to 2,233, for a ratio of 1:14) employed by the foreign repair stations and even less with a working knowledge of how to read or write the English language, which is the standard language of aviation and aircraft technical manuals. There is limited oversight by the FAA at the foreign repair stations. Another question: is there a voluntary disclosure system that exists in relation to these foreign repair stations that is equivalent to what is required of US airlines? This is something the FAA considers critical to the flying public’s safety and is required for air carriers’ operation in accordance with the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs).
Congress has expressed its worry about foreign repair stations too. In fact, those Congressional leaders have proposed legislation to curb this activity, some going so far as to demand that the airlines produce data about where they are accomplishing maintenance and share it with the flying public so they can make an informed decision before they board an aircraft or even buy a ticket. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recently met regarding the status of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization requirements. In those hearings, Chairman DeFazio (D-OR) grilled the Acting Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell on the status of FAA oversight, and mentioned his grave concerns regarding the use of foreign repair stations.
“I have been concerned for years over the FAA’s lax oversight of these facilities,” he said. “Report after report by successive DOT Inspectors General has revealed troubling deficiencies in FAA oversight of foreign repair stations that perform more and more critical safety work on US-registered aircraft.”
The arguments advanced by airlines for utilizing foreign repair stations are extremely alarming. Airlines will argue the foreign repair stations deliver an equivalent level of maintenance. This contention is nearly impossible when you simply compare the low number of certificated mechanics employed by these stations to the large number a uncertificated mechanics performing maintenance at the foreign repair stations. Airlines, including SWA, will try to point to the overall safety record of the foreign repair stations, but these same carriers refuse to acknowledge that the airline’s own mechanics are required to inspect these aircraft shortly after arrival in the US in an effort to identify and fix any discrepancies from the foreign repair station. Upon return to revenue service, mechanics at US airlines have noted instances of critical safety issues such as parts being installed incorrectly. The airlines know this, but still choose to utilize foreign repair stations because the cost savings are too enticing. When the fallacy is exposed, carriers resort to their failsafe — the idea that fares will rise exponentially if all aircraft maintenance is accomplished in the US. Is the flying public willing to risk flying on aircraft maintained by foreign repair stations and uncertificated mechanics to save a few dollars on that roundtrip ticket? I don’t believe so once the public is aware of the truth.
Money is important, but low fares should not be the only objective considered as you make the decision to place your family member or friend on an aircraft. At its core, a commercial aircraft is a metal tube preparing to fly miles above the earth at hundreds of miles an hour. Imagine that the next plane you board has pilots and flight attendants that don’t speak English, aren’t regulated by the FAA or even do not dress in an airline’s consistent uniform. Imagine these pilots and flight attendants working your flight haven’t had a background check and aren’t part of a continuous drug and alcohol testing program. Would you be confident in your safety, or better yet would you put your loved one on that plane? Of course not. You would wait for a plane with a qualified air crew.
It should be no different for aircraft maintenance. The mechanic who worked on your plane might not be visible as you board your flight, but their work is nonetheless absolutely essential to the safety of your flight. You deserve and expect the best, but unless you demand it, your safety could be compromised. Insist that a Certificated Airframe and Powerplant (A & P) Mechanic, the highest FAA mechanic certification, performs maintenance on your aircraft. Unfortunately, carriers like SWA will continue to bypass its own mechanics and shrug off the U.S.-based MROs’ capabilities for no other reason than reducing costs — or in other words, profit — until the flying public demands that the planes they fly on are maintained in the U.S. by certificated mechanics.
At its core, this is another example of profits over safety. As always, it’s important to remember AMFA’s motto: “Safety in the air begins with quality maintenance on the ground.”