As I write this, Google News says it contains nearly 900 current stories about the scandal over maintenance lapses at Southwest Airlines—lapses that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday to propose a record $10.2 million civil penalty against the carrier. Yet fewer than ten of those stories make any reference to the broad threat against airline safety: outsourcing.
Among the handful of items mentioning outsourcing is a statement put out today by Teamsters President James Hoffa. (The mechanics at Southwest are actually represented by an independent union.) Less than a month ago, the Teamsters and the Business Travel Coalition co-sponsored what they called a national summit on aircraft maintenance outsourcing. In addition to a video presentation by Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota—who today revealed more dirt about Southwest and the FAA—the event included a speech by William McGee of Consumer Reports, whose March 2007 article on maintenance outsourcing was titled “An Accident Waiting to Happen?”
The safety threats from outsourcing have also been cited for years by the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation (FAA’s parent agency). A 2003 report by the IG found that major carriers were outsourcing some 47 percent of their total maintenance costs. The IG’s examination of conditions at a sample of repair stations used in the outsourcing found that 86 percent had “discrepancies” such as the use of improper parts and equipment and outdated manuals. A 2005 follow-up report found that the majors had upped the outsourced portion of their maintenance spending to 53 percent, with Southwest well above the average at 64 percent (see page 8).
Last June, the IG told Congress that the majors were now spending 64 percent of their maintenance dollars on contractors. He went on to point to the “challenges” facing the FAA in dealing with the continuing growth of outsourcing, including the fact that it did not have a good system for assigning its inspectors. But the agency told the IG it was addressing the problem—by commissioning a study from…a contractor.