An eight-month-long investigation by CBS News revealed a disturbing trend regarding U.S. aircraft safety and maintenance. The news organization interviewed mechanics from two of the nation’s largest air carriers, American Airlines and Southwest. The mechanics said they are consistently pressured to ignore potential aircraft safety issues and to “short-cut the critical work they perform.” Complaints submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by whistleblowers since 2015 corroborate the investigation’s findings, prompting U.S. Senators to demand answers from the agency regarding the claims and how the agency handled them.
In a letter to the FAA, Democratic Senators Ed Markey (Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) gave the agency until March 5 to provide additional information about claims of undue pressure on airline mechanics including how many complaints the FAA received since Jan. 1, 2017, whether the FAA investigated the claims, and if the agency is investigating the claims discovered by the CBS News investigation team. The senators’ letter also reminded the FAA of its mandate to investigate allegations of safety standards violations and to require corrective action.
Mechanics, some whom spoke out despite potential backlash and even the loss of their jobs, said managers pressured them not to document maintenance issues, to focus only on the work assigned to them and to get the planes back in the air as fast as possible since the airlines do not make money when aircraft aren’t flying passengers. They reported that they are constantly questioned about how long it takes to do their job and encouraged to “skip a few steps.” The safety issues involved significant violations such as “[w]orn tires, worn brakes, [and] damage to the fuselage.”
Airline representatives stand by their airlines’ procedures and deny such safety violations. However, former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member John Goglia told CBS News that “it’s unusual for so many mechanics to speak out publicly” and called it a “field of red flags.”
The industry has experienced an “unparalleled period of safety” with only one airline passenger death in decades, thanks to increased oversight and stronger regulations. However, as often happens when consumer safety improves, the industry and regulators become complacent and take for granted the improvements in passenger safety. They begin to question the investment of time and resources in enhanced safety procedures such as preventative maintenance. There was some indication of this as early as 2015 when the FAA shifted from relying heavily on enforcement to compliance. Data shows that the number of enforcement actions has declined by 70 percent since 2014 and the FAA has relied more on airlines’ own safety programs, essentially allowing the airlines to police themselves. The sole airline passenger death occurred last year, during this time frame of reduced enforcement.
Representatives from the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), two leading unions, spoke out in support of the mechanics, according to Aviation Pros. The unions said, “A debt of gratitude is owed to them by the traveling public, their fellow technicians, and the airlines themselves.”
The unions also criticized the airlines for their “disingenuous denials…that a problem even exists.” The joint statement by the TWU and AMFA disagreed with American Airlines’ claims that almost all aircraft whistleblower cases had been dismissed. Rather, the aircraft mechanics had been required to accept non-disclosure agreements in order to settle their cases. The statement also noted at least one incident where an American Airlines maintenance worker admitted to signing off on a fraudulent safety report and was subsequently promoted to a management position. Further, the unions explained that Southwest is “demanding the right to have its aircraft maintenance work performed in foreign countries that do not safeguard the professional integrity and compliance of [the] profession.
With the declaration of a so-called national emergency by the Trump Administration and the diversion of resources to funding border security, it is highly likely that aviation passenger safety will continue to witness even more shortcuts and additional reductions in enforcement.
This story appears in the March issue of The Jere Beasley Report. Visit the Report online to read more like this or to subscribe.
Sources: CBS News, U.S. Senate, Aviation Pros, Washington Post