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NPR's Daniel Zwerdling discusses investigation of airlines sending repairs abroad


This week on Morning Edition, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling filed reports on airlines increasingly sending their maintenance work to Central America and Asia. Today, 1 of every 5 planes owned by U.S. airlines are overhauled in countries like China, Costa Rica and El Salvador. Workers gaves Zwerdling examples of when their supervisors cut corners. There were cases of their supervisors telling them not to bother repairing planes to specifications because it takes too much time. Many of the problems detailed in the report were on US Airways planes. Joining us now is NPR's Daniel Zwerling. Welcome. Daniel: Hi Scott, thanks. Scott: You're talking to us from Tampa today. Did you fly there? Daniel: I did fly, and I prayed as we took off. I was a little more nervous than usual. But actually, the airline industry keeps saying - and this is true - that this have been if not the safest period in airline history, one of the safest periods in recent years. The problem is that people in FAA, people in the industry, told me privately - they didn't want to go on the record - they say what they're worried about is the airlines have been cutting back on costs so much that they feel like the margin of safety is getting thinner and they're worried that we might be entering a new period where there will be more accidents. Scott: A vice president for US Airways told you that safety is a "top priority," that it's "first and foremost in anything that we do." So with that in mind, why are the airlines doing this? Daniel: Because it's cheaper. If they repair their own plane, and they started discovering this about six years or so ago, it usually means they have to main union mechanics, and it costs a lot of money. Up to $100 per mechanic, per hour (including overhead, administrative costs). If they send a plane to an independent shop in the United States, they can cut costs per hour by about 50 percent. And if they send it to a place like El Salvador or Costa Rica, they can cut the costs by 65 to 70 percent. When you buy your ticket, this only accounts for really a handful of dollars off the prices of your ticket. But people in the airline industry said this is a huge thing to them because when you go looking for fairs on Expedia or Kayak.com, most passengers only look at the flights on the first page. If you're even $10 more expensive as an airline, those flights get put on the second page of a search engine and you don't even look at them. Scott: You focused on a company in El Salvador called Aeroman. How come? Daniel: Simple because Aeroman is getting more popular among U.S. airlines. US Airways sends planes there now. JetBlue sends planes to Aeroman. (So do) Frontier, AmericaWest, Southwest. Now the industry says Aeroman and the other foreign repair shops are just as good as any repair shop in the United States. But when I asked, 'Show me the data?' they said, 'Oh, that's confidential. That's proprietary information.' So I called Aeroman and said I like to come down, interview executives, mechanics (and) take a tour of the shop floor. They said 'No.' I mean, they absolutely refused to even talk with me. Scott: But you took the initiative to go ahead and actually find some workers. You talked to them as they were getting ready to be bussed to the airport to work on planes. Did you get a sense of how seriously they take their jobs? Daniel: These mechanics I met (five), they were very, very serious about their work, and they seemed like very diligent, hard-working young men. They work amazing hours. Often, they work 14-hour shifts. They've been trained. Some of them were auto mechanics or fixed air conditioning units. Then they went into this special program at the local university, which teaches them to become airline mechanics at Aeroman. So they seemed to me to be pretty well trained and diligent. The problem is the supervisors are constantly pressuring them to fix planes faster. Why? Because time is money. So, for example - and at the beginning you played this excerpt - (if) there's corrosion on a metal beam, but it's just a little bit over the tolerance that the manuals allow, the supervisors will say to them, 'It's fine. Don't worry about it. Move on.' Scott: Is there any way we can compare apples to apples here and try and stack these two sources of airline maintenance against each other and figure out if the work being done overseas is as safe as the work being done here (in the U.S.)? Daniel: Scott, you just asked a crucial question, and the astonishing thing to me is that there's no way that the public can get that answer. The industry and officials at the FAA kept saying to me that these foreign repair stations are just as safe as any in the United States. I said, 'Show me the data that shows that Aeroman has just as few maintenance mistakes as the best shops in the United States or wherever. And both the executives in the airlines industry and the vice president at US Airways - who was the only industry executive who would talk to me (on the record) - and the top official at the FAA said we can't give you that data (because) it's proprietary information. Well, there's something wrong with that. I mean, we're all flying on these planes. If they want to show us that they're just as safe as any other, they ought to show us the data. Scott: I would imagine a lot of ears perked up around Charlotte when your reports came on the air this week, because US Airways is the primary carrier in Charlotte. Do you know what percentage of its planes are being sent to be service overseas? Daniel: I asked them, and they told me that was proprietary information. Scott: One of your stories detailed an Inspector General's report that found problems with the FAA's oversight of some of these foreign repair facilities. Excerpt from story: "There is no standard for all FAA offices regarding initial inspector visits, which can cause safety issues to go unchecked." Translation: The FAA's inspectors didn't even show up at some foreign repair stations to monitor their work for as long as three to five years. Scott: So I think that begs the question: Why is the FAA approving these repair shops if it can't adequately keep an eye on them? Daniel: Employees who work right now at the FAA, and former employees have told me - and Inspector General reports have shown this - there is a very strange culture at the FAA, where report after report going back years shows that the FAA often seems to work more in support of industry than in the support of consumers. Click here to listen to Daniel Zwerdling describe specific examples of problems found in planes that were repaired at Aeroman.