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Key Findings

More than 2,300 people have been killed from ice buildup on aircraft, problems on runways, faulty aircraft maintenance and repairs and overtired pilots, despite dozens of NTSB recommendations to address those problems.
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In some instances, FAA inspectors don’t visit repair stations in countries that have agreements with the U.S. that allow their own inspectors to provide full oversight of the repair facilities in that country. These Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreements have been negotiated with several European countries, and Goglia said there is a constant pressure to create similar agreements with other countries in the hopes of improving international relations.

Aeronautical Repair Station Association spokesman Daniel Fisher said if the U.S. required inspections of repair shops in countries with bilateral agreements, those countries could retaliate by requiring their inspectors to come into the U.S. and charge money for their own certifications. And that could affect the bottom line for U.S. repair shops that work on European planes, he said.

“Europeans outsource much of their aviation repair work here,” Fisher said. The U.S. and Canada make $2.4 billion from servicing foreign aircraft. The industry employs 274,000 American workers and has a $39 billion impact on the U.S. economy, according to the Aeronautical Repair Station Association.

During the past five years, the FAA says it has improved its oversight program with a data system that tracks which repair shops are used most frequently by airlines and which pose the most risk. Inspectors then increase their inspections of those maintenance facilities.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr declined to answer questions about the FAA oversight of foreign repair stations but provided a written statement from the agency’s maintenance division.

“The FAA is striving to continually improve safety,” according to the statement. “Since 2007, FAA has hired more than 30 inspectors to staff the International Field Offices that inspect foreign repair stations. The FAA only certifies the number of repair stations it can efficiently monitor.”

About 3,850 FAA inspectors oversee repair stations in the U.S. and abroad.

The NTSB has made only one safety recommendation addressing maintenance work at foreign repair stations, and that was regarding record keeping after the 1995 engine and cabin fire in Atlanta.

NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman said the safety board has no plans to make another recommendation about foreign shops because there has not been a recent safety incident involving maintenance done abroad.

“The safety board investigates accidents, and when we have an accident we basically follow the evidence and see what we can find,” Hersman said.

Problems at Home, Too

The NTSB has pointed out several repair and maintenance dangers that exist in the U.S. despite higher safety standards.

In January of 2000, poor maintenance caused Alaska Airlines Flight 261 to plummet into the Pacific Ocean off of the California coast, killing all 88 people on board. The flight, which was supposed to take passengers from Mexico to Seattle, was at cruising altitude when the mechanical system malfunctioned in the part of the tail that controls the plane’s ability to move up and down.

Investigators found that a crucial jackscrew in the mechanical system had been stripped because of inadequate lubrication and that the FAA had previously relaxed its rules about how often this part of the plane was serviced. And two years before the crash, a lead mechanic at Alaska Airlines noted the jackscrew – an $80,000 part – was worn out and needed to be replaced. It never was.

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