More Airlines Outsourcing Repairs Overseas

The airwaves have been blistering the morning with news about U.S. airlines outsourcing maintenance to cheap foreign labor markets. Kicking off a two-part series this morning, NPR (National Public Radio) reported that U.S. air carriers sent 71% of “heavy airframe maintenance” to private maintenance facilities in 2007. As NPR pointed out, that’s a considerable increase over the 34% of repairs outsourced in 2003. More fallout from the recession, airlines say outsourcing is necessary to decrease costs during a challenging financial time for the aviation industry.

Here’s how NPR explained it: “If an airline fixes its own planes in the U.S., it spends up to $100 per hour for every union mechanic, including overhead and other expenses, according to industry analysts. The airline spends roughly half as much at an independent, non-union shop in America. And it spends only a third as much in a developing country, such as El Salvador.”

NPR reported that 19% of outsourced maintenance services are performed at foreign facilities, many in developing countries. Given the job climate in the U.S., that’s not going to endear airlines to American consumers. And growing concern over the quality of repairs made in foreign shops where training and oversight are less stringent than in the U.S. may create a consumer backlash similar to the China lead-paint scare that ran shock waves through the toy industry last year.

NPR reported that an investigation of a failed door pressure seal on a US Airways flight in January was eventually traced to faulty installation at an El Salvador maintenance facility. The mechanic had installed the seal backwards!

Next time: Does the FAA share the blame?