In 1991, a mechanic at a Turkish repair shop overhauled an engine on a U.S. passenger jet and missed a crack in the engine.
Four years later, on a June afternoon, the 57 passengers on ValuJet Flight 597 heard a loud bang as the plane bolted down a runway in Atlanta. Shrapnel from the busted engine ripped through a fuel line. The engine and cabin caught on fire. One crew member suffered serious puncture wounds from the shrapnel, and another crew member and five passengers suffered minor injuries.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the ValuJet accident concluded that if the Turkish repair station had required the same rigorous record-keeping as U.S. airplane maintenance facilities, the crack probably would have been discovered and the engine part replaced.
Last year, US Airways Flight 518, traveling from Omaha to Phoenix, had to be diverted to Denver because the pressure seal on the main cabin was leaking. A mechanic at the Aeroman repair shop in El Salvador had put a part of the plane's door on backward, according to a National Public Radio report.
Lawmakers and aviation safety experts are raising new concerns about the outsourcing of plane repairs, especially to shops in other countries that are less closely supervised than domestic shops.
More maintenance has moved overseas. Airlines are not required to use regulated repair shops. Foreign repair stations can go five years between inspections, and even then are often tipped off that inspectors are coming. Manuals are in English, but not all the workers read English. Drug tests of workers are illegal in some countries.A News21 analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data showed that about 15,000 accidents or safety incidents in all aviation travel can be attributed at least in part to inferior maintenance or repairs since 1973, when the FAA started keeping such records. In these accidents at least 2,500 people died and 4,200 were injured. (News21, a college journalism coalition, worked with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization in its investigation. Many of their stories are being published this week by msnbc.com. You can read the full series at News21.)
The analysis shows that at least 253 of those accidents involved commercial or chartered passenger planes and harmed people onboard. On those passenger flights, nearly 800 people died and more than 850 were injured.
FAA not following many safety guidelines
Thousands of mechanics from all over the world work on U.S. commercial airplanes. Foreign repair stations are located in Canada, Mexico, Central America and Asia. Domestically, airplanes are repaired at large facilities in Mobile, Ala., Greensboro, N.C., and Everett, Wash., among many others.
Faulty maintenance, regardless of where the work is done, is the No. 2 cause of airplane accidents and safety incidents, second to pilot error and other operational errors, according to data compiled by the FAA.
When an airplane crashes or has a close call, it is the job of the NTSB to come up with ways to make the industry safer for passengers. But it's up to the FAA whether or not to turn those recommendations into rules for the industry.
The FAA has failed to follow at least 37 of the NTSB's 340 safety recommendations concerning airplane maintenance since 1967. Those safety suggestions include requirements for special training on complex aircraft parts and more frequent inspections of some critical parts.By 2001, safety regulators had come up with new rules that hold foreign repair stations to the same standards as domestic repair shops for filling out paperwork and keeping records.
Safety advocates want FAA inspectors to make more frequent visits to foreign repair stations to check the quality of work. They want measures to reduce drug and alcohol use at those far-off facilities. And they want the FAA to get a better handle on the growing number of repair shops in the U.S. and overseas that operate without FAA certification or inspections.
The FAA has not "prioritized looking at the issue, and I don't think the American flying public realizes to what extent maintenance has been outsourced in an effort to cut costs," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., an advocate of cracking down on foreign repair stations, said while questioning members of the aviation industry during a 2009 Senate hearing.
A couple of decades ago, U.S. airlines repaired and serviced their own airplanes in the U.S. But by the late 1980s, when labor costs rose and rules about foreign airplane repairs relaxed, airlines began outsourcing maintenance to less expensive repair shops. In 2003, airlines outsourced 34 percent of heavy maintenance, which includes taking an airplane apart and putting it back together, a process that can take weeks. That share rose to 71 percent by 2007, according to an inspector general's report in 2008.
And more of that outsourced work has gone to foreign repair stations, said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member who now works as a transportation safety consultant. In 2003, 21 percent of the outsourced heavy maintenance work was done by foreign shops; that rose to 27 percent by 2007, according to the same report.
Those numbers could be even higher because the FAA requires airlines to divulge only the top 10 stations they use most often for major repairs, according to the report.
Many airlines in America have faced financial distress over the past decade, and some have gone bankrupt. Goglia said airlines face pressures to outsource to maintenance facilities with the lowest prices, and that could mean planes are receiving lower quality repairs.
"The airlines will make a switch to another vendor for seemingly minor differences in price," Goglia said. "That does lead to considerable amounts of pressure on any vendor providing services to an airline."
The number of outsourced airplane repairs is no doubt much larger than the FAA numbers indicate. That's because they only account for repairs done at certified shops.
The FAA certifies more than 4,100 maintenance facilities in this country and more than 700 abroad to work on U.S. aircraft. But the FAA doesn't require airlines to use those shops. Airlines can go to non-certified repair stations that are inspected only by the airlines that use them — not the FAA. The mechanics there must follow the airline's manuals and guidelines.
"Why do we have certified repair stations if people aren't required to use them?" McCaskill said.
In 2007, the Department of Transportation sampled 19 airlines and found that all of them were outsourcing to non-certified facilities. In its report, the DOT's inspector general identified more than 1,400 non-certified shops performing maintenance for those aircraft, 100 of which were foreign stations in countries such as Aruba, Belize, Bermuda, Haiti and Mexico.
Sometimes repairs are as simple as boxing up a cockpit screen and sending it off to a television repair shop. Other times they're as complex as sending landing gears parts to a shop in Mexico for chrome plating.
When airlines outsource to countries where the rules are more lax, "you're increasing the risk a little bit," Goglia said. "Risk is like a ladder. If you raise the risk and go up the ladder, the danger of falling gets greater and greater."
The FAA would not agree to interviews on airline maintenance and repairs but said in a prepared statement that it closely regulates and monitors repair stations, both domestic and foreign, and that airlines and contractors are required to comply with federal regulations.
The FAA makes an attempt to monitor work done at foreign stations, but its oversight consists primarily of once-a-year inspections. And the stations typically are notified in advance when the inspection will take place.