One of the dirty secrets of the airline industry is that maintenance managers regularly subordinate aviation safety to on-time performance. This ugly phenomenon arises from the fact that airlines rate their maintenance managers’ performance, not on their technicians’ proficiency in detecting safety items, but on keeping aircraft in revenue service.
The principal bulwark against deteriorating maintenance standards is the individual mechanic who has the courage and integrity to resist the pressure to pencil-whip unairworthy aircraft back into service. Fortunately, in most developed countries, mechanisms exist to protect a technician who is determined to do the right thing.
In the United States, a federal whistleblower statute, commonly referred to as “AIR 21,” provides remedies – including back pay and attorney’s fees – for employees who are subject to discipline in retaliation for making good faith reports.
At one major U.S. airline, maintenance managers advised that series of 737 aircraft arriving for maintenance were known to have cracks in a section of the fuselage that was not part of the scheduled maintenance package. Management warned that anyone discovering these cracks would be subject to discipline work for leaving his/her assigned work area.
Notwithstanding this warning, one brave avionics mechanic wrote up a frame defect which, according to the applicable maintenance manual, constituted a “major repair.” In response, the airline condemned the employee for “viewing cracks located on frame locations outside your work area,” which would “no longer be tolerated or acceptable.” The airline warned that a repetition of this offense “will result in disciplinary action up to and including discharge.”
Not willing to be intimidated into substandard maintenance practices, the avionics mechanic pursued an action through the AIR 21 complaint process. The final result was an order directing that the airline purge his disciplinary file and pay his attorney’s fees.
At another major airline, a unionized mechanic availed himself of the arbitration process to combat retaliatory discipline. An aircraft experienced oil loss of such magnitude (over seven liters) that a potential engine problem was indicated. The aircraft mechanic initially assigned the discrepancy replaced the CSD oil cooler to see if that was the problem. In order to confirm that this was the proper fix, an oil leak check had to be performed and documented on the appropriate discrepancy card. Nevertheless, the crew chief released the aircraft into revenue service without any documentation confirming that an oil leak check had been performed.
A lead mechanic, upon discovering the open discrepancy, reported the matter to the Federal Aviation Administration, which resulted in the grounding of the aircraft. While the airline took no action against the crew chief who committed this error, it terminated the lead mechanic.
The lead’s labor union stood behind its member by engaging legal counsel and demanding a full evidentiary hearing before a neutral arbitrator. The process was a grueling one, lasting three years, but ultimately resulted in the lead mechanic’s reinstatement with full back pay.
As a labor attorney, I have come to recognize that a critical element of the U.S. airline industry's safety has been the rule of law. While the remedies afforded by both AIR 21 and the standard union contract are properly characterized as merely “make whole” relief – which do no more than restore the technician to his pre-retaliation economic status without imposing a substantial economic disincentive on the carrier – these remedies support an aviation technician’s faith that his adherence to safe aviation practices will ultimately be vindicated.
Unfortunately, major carriers have responded to the costs of maintenance in developed countries – including the costs imposed by the rule of law – by outsourcing thousands of jobs to countries where the rule of law does not prevail.
If airline managers in the developed world frequently pressure their mechanics to engage in substandard maintenance practices, it is distressing to contemplate what happens in the context of authoritarian regimes where a growing share of aircraft maintenance is being performed. One cannot pretend that a Chinese aircraft technician, or one in El Salvador for that matter, has any choice but to do what he is told.
Is the airline industry safe? Whether it's the dramatic reduction of domestic maintenance staffing, the outsourcing of maintenance to vendors in authoritarian countries, the elimination of pre-flight and post-flight inspections, or the evaporation of spare parts inventories, the answer is this – we are a lot less safe than we used to be and we are on a downward slope that has been heavily greased by greed and indifference.
To halt the slide, it is imperative that aviation technicians in every country enjoy the protections afforded by the rule of law. To the extent these protections do not exist at the now-favored destinations for outsourced maintenance, governmental aviation regulators from the developed world need to recognize that, when they perform mandated inspections of maintenance operations in authoritarian countries, they must do double duty.