Interview Linda Goodrich

Linda Goodrich

Goodrich, a veteran FAA inspector, has been involved with inspecting airplanes for 25 years. She is currently vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a union for FAA and Department of Defense employees. Goodrich explains: "Everybody built in for years a very large margin of safety into the system, and that safety margin has been just dissolving over time." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 16, 2010.

We went to this facility, ST [Aerospace] Mobile, [Inc.], and, first of all, they wouldn't let us in. Are you surprised?

No. That would be standard protocol for just about any place. I think most companies are pretty nervous about having the media come in and snoop around.

Why is that, though?

I think they're concerned over your interpretation of what you see. There could be parts all over the place. There could be concern over how you would characterize what they're doing, and they might have some things that aren't exactly perfect out there, so they don't want you to be left with the opportunity to kind of capture that. ...

... We did make contact with some workers there. Now, these workers, for obvious reasons, can't share their identity with the world; they're worried about their jobs. But the picture they painted, the picture we can't see with our cameras, is really not a pretty picture at all: ... long hours; relatively speaking, low pay. ...

Absolutely.

What's the impact, though, on the floor of a maintenance facility when you start talking about those kinds of hours, that kind of work schedule, that kind of pay?

... You get up in those numbers of hours there, and there's some significant impact as a mechanic. I know what that feels like, and you just get to the point where you're starting to make mistakes.

“The industry keeps pushing the envelope. … You can't keep changing all the variables and expect nothing's going to be the consequence to that.”

You may hurt yourself by you falling off of something. You normally maybe tie yourself in to go into a particular area of the airplane; you don't bother. You just go ahead and get in there.

You start making a lot of mistakes at that point, and that reflects in the quality of the work, and you can't help it. You start cutting corners. You're a human being, and you're going to get the job done, because that's the ultimate goal.

You have 10-, 12-hour workdays, and this is in a hot hangar in Mobile, [Ala]. Try that in August and see how you're doing on hour 11.

That's exactly right.

Having said that, though, when you're paying somebody $15 an hour or $13 an hour, does that really matter? Are there people out there who will do the job well at that wage?

I don't think most people, if they know what they're doing.

In other words, some of these people may be entry-level people with no experience. ... That just means that someone has come onboard maybe as a mechanic's helper, or whatever they're going to be doing, so their skill sets are going to be all over the place.

And a lot of these people are just not passionate about aviation. They're not totally committed to whatever they have to do. It's a job. So as the rates get up and the money gets higher and there's more return for the work that they're doing, you're going to get people that have a lot more longevity; they have a lot more experience.

But I don't think anybody comes into any of these jobs trying to do a bad job. I think it's based upon their skill sets and whatever they come in for. ...

We are very well aware of a lot of these people that are being imported from overseas, and they're starting at $5 and $6 [an hour] to be competitive with the international market. That's a horrible number, barely the minimum wage. ...

Editors' Note: The mechanic pay range begins at $14 an hour at ST Mobile.

One of the workers told us that he worked 35 days in a row to get a plane out the door.

... They're very lightweight regulations that oversee -- I believe you can't work more than six days in a row without having a day off, but they can max you out on each one of those days. ...

Based on ... the way they describe the six-day weeks, 12-hour days, one person 35 days in a row, how would you characterize that working environment?

From an inspector's perspective, unacceptable, because there's going to be mistakes made, and a lot of those mistakes will be integrated under skin, under inside areas that we can't foresee. Nobody can discover it.

The plane's been signed off, pushed back, and here we've got an airplane rolling down the runway with the understanding that everything was taken care of.

God forbid they hit the V-cuts, and they go ahead and pull back on the yoke and take off in that very critical stage, and now someone figures out that there's something that wasn't properly maintained, and it was because of the fact that they pushed these people so hard.

... When you talk to the industry, what they say is if these companies did shoddy work, they'd be out of business in a heartbeat. The airlines would see the flaws, and they wouldn't continue to use them; it wouldn't be cost-effective. What you're suggesting is that a lot of mistakes end up buried beneath the metal.

Correct. Let's say, we pray, that they didn't take off. They actually discovered something before that happened at some phase before they pull back, and so they come back to the gate, and now they're trying to figure out what the heck is going on. At that stage now it's a bunch of troubleshooting, and it now becomes incumbent upon wherever they are at the time.

If it happens to be people at that carrier finding this stuff, then there's a mitigation that goes on. Let's see here: It costs X number of dollars for us to fix the thing that wasn't done right to begin with, but, after all, it was just $10 an hour.

So the bean counters start calculating, and it was still cheaper for us to go to them and get the majority of the work done right, and then we were able to capture this before the airplane took off. That's how they mitigate that.

So somewhere in these airlines, there are people with green eyeshades who literally make calculations as to whether it's worth it to pay less for maintenance and deal with the consequences later.

Absolutely. ... Everybody built in for years a very large margin of safety into the system, and that safety margin has been just dissolving over time just due to the fact that they're trying to be competitive to the point where there's hardly anything there.

It's very dependent on every single person [taking] time to do the right thing, and hopefully we always catch something before a catastrophic failure, and that's a risk that they're willing to take.

... There's a lot of unemployment in this country, and yet these companies are flying in people from Third World nations to work on airplanes we fly. Why is that happening?

Because there's a loophole in the system, and it enables carriers, repair stations, whomever, to import people. ... They're cheap labor. ...

What this raises is the issue of language. What do the rules say about whether aviation mechanics need to speak or understand the English language? ...

Basically the idea is that if you're an Airframe and/or Powerplant mechanic certificated by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], you have to read, write and understand the English language.

If you are a mechanic's helper -- if you are working under the certificate of somebody else -- you just have to demonstrate to the FAA that you have training in place, that you have enough quality control and people in place to ensure that these people don't do something other than what they're supposed to be doing, and so there's no requirement for them to absolutely have to be able to read this stuff.

Why is it so important to be able to understand English?

Because there is very specific instructions that are given to every single mechanic on the floor. ...

This is one area where it's extremely important that we walk in with this, that we're making sure that everybody is following the rules exactly, whether it be Boeing instructions, it be United Airlines instructions. Whoever is giving them, that is what they are supposed to be doing.

There's nuances. The instructions from Delta will be different from the instructions from United, and United's will be different from US Airways. That's the reason why, every time a repair station is doing work for any one of those airlines, they put on that hat for that period of time, so they theoretically are working for that airline. They're an extension.

So for them, I'm always doing this particular function. I finally got it down. I don't read, write and understand the English language, but they finally taught me how to do that.

But there's tolerances and there's deviations from what the manufacturer of the equipment has dictated and higher standards, minimum standards, whatever they've negotiated with the manufacturer. There's no way you're going to know the difference.

If I can't read the instruction that said the tolerance is now .002, and I've been doing it to 5 or 6 or whatever it may be, I'm going to do it to what I've been practicing, because I've got it down. I'm finally there, and I know how to do this function.

Now, they gave me that same function, and if I can't read, I'm going to do it differently, and/or I'm going to do it wrong. ...

What are the rules on background checks? ... Does the Federal Aviation Administration say you have to check somebody's certificate to make sure it's valid?

Yes. You have to prove and demonstrate that you have gone through and done all of your checks if they have a certificate.

So let's assume that they don't. They maybe present a visa, so they'd have to validate the visa. Maybe they present nothing more than a driver's license. But they have to verify that those people are who they said they are.

Security has all sorts of requirements for ensuring that we don't hire a terrorist. There's all sorts of things now today that have been put in place that aren't necessarily part of the FARs [Federal Aviation Regulations], but they are an extension of Homeland Security, for the obvious reasons. ...

But you could have 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 people working in multiple hangars. It's a huge job. That sampling is very small in comparison to the actual enormous amounts of work that's going on. ... So it's a very difficult situation and not an acceptable one for sure.

You bring up this point of security, and you mentioned terrorists. That's a scary thought to think that somebody could infiltrate a facility. ... What are the rules on criminal background checks?

... We're looking to see, do they have a process in place, and have they met the requirements of security and TSA [Transportation Security Administration]? And that's the best we can do with it, because our job kicks in when we're verifying their credentials, when we're verifying their training, when we're verifying the people using the proper tools and so on and so forth. ...

What about overseas?

That's been a bone of contention for a long time. ...

PASS [Professional Aviation Safety Specialists] has been very vocal, working with congressmen and senators on putting more robust systems in place, both on the security and the background checks as well as drug and alcohol testing, and we've been basically incapable of enforcing much of anything.

Just now, after years and years of expectation that Congress mandated, they are putting procedures in place to the point where if we were to go certificate this repair station overseas, we couldn't do so until TSA says, "Thumbs up." ...

But that's not in place yet. That's still not happening, and they're still working through that as of the last time we checked. It's very frustrating.

It's very scary to us, because many times when we as inspectors go out, we're going out by ourselves. We often are by ourselves overseas, and it's us against the entire company, trying to figure out, is this indeed a company that has things under control, and people that are not terrorists, and people that are, you know, getting me involved and that kind of stuff? ...

One of the things that came up time and again in these conversations were ... questions about the qualifications of the mechanics inside ST. ... We looked at some FAA documents that seemed to indicate that a third or less of ST workers had that Airframe and Powerplant license, that official license from the FAA to work on airplanes. How does that compare to other facilities?

On the air carrier side -- meaning the air carrier where they also incorporate a repair station within the facility -- it's almost 100 percent, if not 100 percent of the people will have an Airframe and Powerplant mechanics certificate.

On the repair station side, they have the authority to have unlimited number of people and to accommodate whatever work they have, and the percentage is what we as FAA inspectors are validating of number of people who don't have any experience versus those who are authorized to sign off on work.

They have to demonstrate a reasonable ratio that can ensure that that person can look at their work, touch it, be there and available to answer any questions, so on and so forth. And that would not be a percentage that would be appropriate. ... That's spreading those people ... so thin that it's physically impossible for you to be doing the intent of what the Federal Aviation Regulations was expecting.

But the regulation is vague, isn't it?

It is vague, and so it's up to the opinion of the inspector and the ability of the repair station to demonstrate that indeed, when we're doing this type of work, we then put the ratio at this, and when we're doing this type of work, it's not as necessary.

That conversation negotiation goes on, and it still is left up to the inspector to decide whether indeed they meet the intent of the FARs. ... But overall, as an inspector, we're very well aware that this is a constant battle, pressure: "Get that airplane pushed out."

... We've got pressure from the carrier saying they've got to have these number of airplanes done and inspections done, and they've got to get this done by a certain date because there's consequences, financial consequences, because the airplanes are being cycled back into the system, and they've got to be local. They've got to get them where they need to be to be able to pick up passengers, etc.

That is a very big problem, and it's been a problem for a long time.

More on pressure. Listen to this.

Editors' Note: The transcript of the clip played for Goodrich can be found here.

... It's just devastating to hear things like that, because you know it happens. And just for the exact reasons that he said, is that timelines. It's perceived that it's not that big of a deal, that step, whatever it is. I can easily sign off on that. It's probably OK.

And you can't take shortcuts. This is an industry [where] you can't take shortcuts. It will come back to bite you, and there will end up being issues, ... but they depend on that, because they know they can get away with a certain amount of it because it will be found by the mechanics of the airline. ...

And that's not true. You can't depend on that, nor should you. And this is just an unacceptable way of handling things, and that's extremely disappointing that he's relaying that on.

We've got some documents which paint a little more of the picture. ... This is an internal ST Aerospace Mobile document. The date is May 10 of 2010. ... In essence, three airplanes went out the door with a fuel tank -- a tip tank in the Airbus A330 -- that was not fixed properly, and our read of it is it sounds like it was a pretty big omission. But I want you to look at it and tell me what you think about this, and tell me what that says about that facility.

Well, this is an interesting document. ... You've got a thing called a trim tank, and it is collocated in the tail section of the airplane, and its purpose is to take fuel in and out for weight and balance, and normally on takeoff, the tank would be empty.

I think most important is you don't screw around with fuel. Fuel leaks -- and this is dealing with a fuel leak -- so somehow somebody has discovered a fuel leak, is coming down to ST Mobile having to address this fuel leak and get it fixed. ...

When we do our walk-arounds for the airplanes, we're looking for fuel leaks. When you see something like this happen, you take it very seriously. ...

Fuel and an APU [auxiliary power unit], which is also in the tail section, the combination is, you've got a bomb back there. I mean, you've got fire; you've got unacceptable consequences. So you don't screw around with fuel leaks.

So for them to have this responsibility to accomplish this task and sign it off as being taken care of, aside from seeing some leak coming from outside the airplane, if someone doesn't see something and/or react to that, the airplane's signed off; it's heading off; it's coming out of here. It's push-back time.

It goes back to the airline that requested it in the first place, and everybody right down the line, all the gates right down the line, everybody's going to be assuming that the leak has been addressed and it's been signed off, and people are progressing accordingly, and you have a fuel leak. And the consequences are just not acceptable. ...

By the company's own admission here, the mechanics signed off the work as completed when in fact the work was not. The mechanics failed to visually check each other's work and relied on a verbal pass-down. What is the company admitting there?

... They're admitting that they are willing to cut corners as serious as not addressing a fuel leak.

It would be one thing: "I think we've addressed it. We're not quite sure, but let's sign it off and get it out there." There was a knowing sign-off to disregard it.

We're not talking about a leak in the lavatory.

Well, that's bad, too. Leaks are just not good. ...

Rating this on the level of seriousness, this is up there?

Oh, yeah, this is very serious, because if they're willing to do it for something as important as that is, then they're willing to do it on just about any level. ...

This can't be coincidentally the only time that things have been signed off that weren't accomplished, so this is the tip-of-an-iceberg type of a situation and not a good one, for sure.

So those problems with the trim tanks, which you described as pretty serious, did prompt some FAA scrutiny, but there's a catch to it. Listen to this.

Editors' Note: The transcript of the clip played for Goodrich can be found here.

Well, the parts are called either "suspected" or "suspected unapproved" parts. ... My reaction is that I'm convinced there's a very serious problem out there with this exact same thing going on. It happens domestically; it happens internationally.

It's incumbent upon the repair facility to follow the FARs, which said that you will destroy the product. You will damage it in such a way that it can't resurface, because parts in aviation are very expensive, and there's a huge underground that does exactly this.

So for that not even to get out to the underground, they didn't even bother throwing it out. ... And that's the worst thing that can happen, because if something happens, and we find that out due to an accident or an incident, now you're going to have to put down fleets of airplanes because you don't know if it was an unapproved part that went on the airplane, a timed-out part; is it an inherent problem with the parts themselves? ...

The way that we catch them at doing the wrong thing is that we have the authority to spontaneously show up, and I don't blame them, but the industry pushes back hard because it says: "Well, you're going to seriously impact us economically because your people are going to be running around, they're going to be asking questions and interrupting our flow, and it's going to financially impact us, and we're not going to get airplanes out because you guys are interrupting. So we need to know when you're coming so that we can have the proper people in place and react to whatever you're doing." ...

But the rules allow you to just pop in, right?

Yes.

It doesn't happen?

... It's a relationship thing going on. We've got to be a friendlier FAA. We've got to work with the customer. In this case it's the repair station, and we want them to be successful and not ticked off when we come in there, so we're going to take into consideration the economic impact, so as a result, ... it's: "I've got a whole list. I know exactly what they're going to be doing and seeing, and then I can get prepared for that."

Is the repair station the FAA's customer?

The flying public is our customer, but for many years -- even though the aviation professionals that I represent know very well that the ultimate customer is the flying public and the taxpayer -- the focus was on the carriers and the repair stations as our customer, and you were expected to work proactively. ...

We're regulators. People expect us to be coming in and holding people accountable, and I would hope the taxpayer pays us well to come in and hold them accountable, and this is just not the way of doing business.

But wait, there's more. There's a little something else we learned as we were investigating down there. Listen to this.

Editors' Note: The transcript of the clip played for Goodrich can be found here.

Oh, great. So here we at least thought they were getting rid of stuff, and now we're finding out that all they did is store it someplace and bring it right back in again.

I don't understand how that financially turns out to be a good thing, because eventually all this stuff fails, and it can't. The consequences are just unbelievable. ...

Have you heard of that before?

Over the years, of course. There just isn't anything that you haven't heard, but not to this degree. ...

So this idea that parts, according to this worker, were going into rented vans, off to warehouses, and some of those parts were actually funneling back into that maintenance facility after the FAA was long gone, have you heard of that before, and what are the implications of that?

... Every part has a birth certificate, and it has an amount of information that stays with it, and the intention is so that if I do remove it from an airplane, work on it and put it back, that history continues to stay with it, because many parts are timed.

There's only so much you can use it for, or there's all sorts of requirements that have to take place -- maybe certain types of inspections at a certain level -- so it's extremely important that the paperwork be as accurate and stay with the airplane and/or with the part.

For them to ... put parts back into the system that either have no or improper paperwork, ... that could be a part that could end up helping to bring down an airplane. It's that serious. You don't screw around with parts. ...

We were able to obtain some documents which came out of some of these inspections. ... Currently the ratio of quality control inspectors, QC, is 80 mechanics to 1 inspector. Quality assurance, QA, does not appear to have enough inspection personnel to properly monitor all maintenance programs. Is that ratio something that would be considered acceptable?

No, and that's the reason why this inspector has raised attention to that unacceptable ratio. ...

... Is it possible for one inspector to properly supervise 80 mechanics?

No, and the easy way of identifying that is that the inspector must be able to touch and be in contact with everybody that is on that shift that they are responsible for, because they have to be made available to answer any questions, to verify, to validate, to sign off. ...

They can't sign it off unless they know for sure that the work has been completed. That's just key to the whole thing. ...

Here it is laid out in a letter to the manager at ST Mobile Aerospace -- laying this out from the FAA that [there was a] parts-tagging issue found throughout hangars, missing, not filled out correctly, and that this is a repeat finding. ...

What bothers me is the fact that it's repeat. If you're an inspector and you continue to raise attention to issues with the carrier or with the repair station, and they continue to raise these things, there has to be some enforcement action. You can't just keep saying the same thing over and over again and expect different results by some miracle.

We already know that their culture seems to be in question, so this must lead to enforcement action. There's a consequence to the fact that they're not doing what they need to be doing. ... They're not holding them accountable enough. They're not making the financial consequence tough enough.

Whatever is happening is not happening properly.

That means that the inspectors are doing their part, but the legal system is failing them in being able to adjudicate the level necessary to get the desired results. ...

... We went to the records, and we discovered that in spite of all this paperwork and all the inspections and all the repeat findings of problems, in the past seven or eight years, there's been one fine levied against ST Mobile to the tune of $10,000. Now, does that seem like it matches what has been laid out here?

No. ... That's nothing. They would probably have in their budget $100,000 or more. That's just the cost of doing business. That doesn't get the desired effect. That's not going to be enough for this company or any other company to change the way they're doing business.

Why is the FAA apparently reluctant to levy fines which might get their attention?

It goes back to a conversation we've had before about the customer.

The culture in the FAA for many years ... was work with the operator, work with the agency, meaning air carrier is an air agency, repair station is an air agency. Figure out what can we do to help them be successful. ...

This philosophy has carried over to more upper levels. The inspector keeps doing their job, as you can see by this documentation, but they even took it out of our hands. That is no longer within our authority to make those decisions.

It just goes up to the highest levels of the agency to make determinations, and most of it is done through our legal system, which is very bare minimums. In many cases, these lawyers are not even aviation-savvy. ...

I'm sure there's certain people saying: "Let's figure out a balance on this thing. We're not trying to kill them with a big fine." It's not working. You do this enough, and we're a joke. Inspectors become a joke. We come in there, and they're going: "Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, whatever. We'll just continue what we've been doing, because there hasn't been a consequence big enough to change our attitude on this."

There's not a threat of maybe losing the certificate if you don't do this. There's nothing to leverage if the agency at the highest levels is not interested in holding them accountable with something that's going to hurt.

... You've been in the industry now for a long time. It's changed a little bit, hasn't it? And that's a big question, I know, but give me a sense of some of the big trends that you've witnessed, maybe for good, maybe for bad.

I would say probably the most important trend is the fact that we all recall the major hubs of all the major airlines, and there was probably about 10 major airlines for many years, and all the work was done there, right at that hub. ...

As we have evolved, people start looking at different business models. Look at Southwest, for example. Their business model was point to point, and eventually they would make it back to Phoenix. But their whole thing was based upon the fact that they were providing a service in a completely different configuration.

That meant that there was a need for MRO [maintenance, repair and overhaul] facilities expanding out, and there was an opportunity, so a lot of companies started up, and they started becoming very robust in their ability to take advantage of this new trend of outsourcing. ...

So now all of a sudden, the industry started really getting with the program and, "Why should we be doing hardly any of this at the hub when we could just have facilities out there that we contract to whenever we need them?" Otherwise they're not paying for it. ...

So we went from a couple thousand mom-and-pops with a few major repair facilities to over 4,000 that are all over the United States providing everything from cleaning a part to doing the entire airplane. And they've decimated the mechanics who have been with those carriers for 20, 30 years. Those workforces are just decimated down to a few numbers. ...

Going out and auditing those facilities, the role changed radically. As the economy changed and went up and down, as we all know, pretty soon they could justify flying an airplane to Israel and having work done there.

The cost with fuel and everything, it was cheaper for a massive D check -- where the airplane's basically disassembled and put back together again -- it was financially justifiable to take some of those airplanes, fly them all the way over there and have the work done and come back and still be cheaper than what they were doing domestically.

Well, that became kind of a competitive thing, and then they realized: "Wait a minute. Look at the oversight of the inspectors domestically. There's hardly anybody overseas, and it's much easier to get certification overseas. Standards aren't exactly the same because we can hire anybody we want," and so and so forth. So this really started taking off.

A good example, sad example, domestically ... was ValuJet. Outsourcing -- good heavens. All we have to do is be the middlemen. We don't have to do anything. We can just farm out everything, and everybody takes care of everything, and all we have to do is just get airplanes and get investors.

And it just went hog wild, because there was no real aviation regulation that restricted the outsourcing piece. So it went crazy until pretty soon the few number of inspectors that were trying desperately to maintain some kind of oversight, it was way beyond their capacity, and you really didn't know it until the horrible accident. ...

So [the FAA] radically changed in l998 the oversight as a risk-based, data-driven system, and the whole intention was to know that we'll never have enough resources; we'll never have enough government employees to be everywhere, because, good heavens, with the 4,000-plus shops domestically, over 700 shops and growing in both cases overseas, around the world to every corner of the world, Third World countries, too, wherever, it was impossible.

We had to come up with a system that enabled us to rank the issues that were going on and then to prioritize that risk, and then we put the resources to the highest risk areas -- whether it be a carrier, whether it be their operations or it be the repair facilities -- and that's how we've changed over the years to get into that piece of that oversight. ...

A lot of people watching might think that FAA inspectors are out there, they're actually looking over somebody's shoulder. The term I think you use is "touching the metal." That doesn't happen?

It's the exception to the rule. That is exactly how we used to do it. We were out there and about. We were in a deterrent capacity, meaning like the cop on the corner. ... It's conscious that we utilize our visits as both a deterrent and then of course to exercise or inspection.

In a data-driven, risk-based system, the majority of our time is behind a computer, taking in data, most of which is provided by the carrier. ...

To actually go over there and touch metal, that's a conscious decision, not just, "I think I'll get in a government vehicle and go visit the carrier."

But the FAA inspector who does that has to assume that that data he or she receives reflects what's going on in the hangar.

That's right. There's a lot of trust built into this system.

Should it be trust, or should it be --

Trust but verify. ...

Most of us come from a touching world; we came from looking and touching and feeling and observing, and this is a very difficult transition for our workforce.

So that's how we've evolved to not touching metal like we've always been used to doing. I'm not saying that that is the ideal and what we used to do was the perfect thing, but there has to be a balance in this whole thing, and I think that that piece is of deep concern to our inspectors even today. ...

... Back in the days when you started, when there were 10 centralized facilities all in the domestic lower 48 and you could go and touch the metal, is that intrinsically safer? ... Is it inherently safer if the airline does all of its own work in-house as opposed to farming it out?

Outsourcing is a balance. It's a very delicate balance, and the example of that is that ValuJet. They were going along outsourcing until pretty soon the span of control is out of control. You can't continue outsourcing everything. You have to maintain responsibility. ...

I don't think any of us ever envisioned that that would turn into every nut and bolt being outsourced. It's that degree, and it's not just the outsource at that level. There's unlimited levels from that. So I can outsource to a certificated, who outsources to an uncertificated, who outsources to another uncertificated. There is no limit to this, so we don't even know the depth of a lot of this.

This is an issue of really not knowing for sure what's going on. It could be just as safe. What's your gut telling you, though, because we really don't know, do we?

Fortunately we're not seeing catastrophic accidents yet. What we're seeing is a tremendous number of incidents, of occurrences, turn-backs, a lot of things that are caught at the last, the nth hour. ...

You just can't keep changing, cutting back and not think there's going to be a consequence to that. We don't know what the consequences are going to be. We have no way of determining that. ...

What you're suggesting is the aviation industry, because it's economically under the gun and has been for quite sometime, is really borrowing from its safety margin.

Yes. Very well said. Borrowing from the safety margin that was built in by engineers and history and professionals that knew just how far you could push something. ...

So to borrow an opera expression, is the fat lady about to sing here?

We're horrified. We're scrambling to do the best we can, and we've seen people capture lots of information. There's too many things broken -- and I say that term very loosely, and I shouldn't probably use it that way -- but too many things that have been pushed to the limit, and we see it starting to disassemble itself. ...

Are the inspectors frustrated, demoralized through all this?

Very frustrated. The demoralized part is when you continue to find things, and you can't get anybody to support you in getting this elevated.

For instance, overseas I could have a laundry list of items that I found. I put them into the system, and then there's negotiations that go on. The State Department, the FAA, governments get involved. Everybody discusses this.

We don't have the time to really go back, so the only thing that happens is ... the letter goes out to the carrier, the facility, and at some point we get this nice letter saying: "All right. We got everything. We took care of everything. Thank you very much. We have taken care of everything that you've raised."

That's it?

I don't have anything else. ...

Tell me what you know about AMECO. Do you have any direct experience [with them]? Did you ever go over there, or do you know anything about their track record?

... I have looked, or I've been shown, lots of discrepancies and repeat discrepancies, cultural problems, a lack of people understanding what they're really responsible for doing, not doing it in accordance with the carrier that they were doing at the time. ...

Training was another issue over there. There also was a very serious issue in parts. Sound familiar? ...

There's another closed hangar door which behind it you paint not a pretty picture at all.

I am deeply concerned, because it's one thing if we had lots of people overseas to really do the same spontaneous types of inspections domestically as we can do overseas.

We've got the time it takes to get there, we have these people that are focused exclusively on doing a certification, but there's no ability to really follow up like we can do stateside. There are different standards. They dispute that, and there's a lot of people that would argue with me, but we've seen it. ...

We were invited in by AMECO, and a week in advance of that trip -- we were all booked and ready to go -- we were uninvited, and this happened to be after they became aware of the fact that we had some information about their track record. Does that surprise you that we were told not to come?

It was surprising that you said that for at least a period of time there they were willing to have you come over. ...

Has that kind of thing happened to the FAA in your tenure?

... There's been many times where you're all set to go and then so-and-so's sick, and they were key to showing you around, or our interpreter is not available for another week or something. Whatever the reasons were, definitely those things have happened.

So they really dictate when you can be there and how you can be there. The whole thing is managed, frankly, by the facility. You'd like to think that the inspector can come in and say: "OK, now you listen to me. This is what we're going to do here today." It doesn't happen that way.

It is dictated by overseas. It's very dictated by their ability, absolutely.

... You listed a long list of issues that had been reported and discovered by the FAA over the years in relation to AMECO. I'm curious why United or any other airline would continue to use them as a maintenance facility if that is in fact the kind of work they do.

Money.

Editors' Note: Here's what United told FRONTLINE in an official statement: "As a global company, we perform maintenance on airplanes all over the world. Our maintenance is in full compliance with strict FAA standards as well as our own, whether performed in the U.S. or abroad, by our employees or by a partner."

If it's shoddy work, they've still got to fix it eventually, right?

There's a mitigation there. If the majority of it gets done to a certain level, there's a confidence that it will eventually get to maybe one of our stateside people, or maybe even back to our main area, where we can see what's going on and get it fixed.

There's evidently enough confidence in the basic stuff getting done well enough -- so they can, even crippled, get to the next location -- that they're willing to stick with them.

It seems like a roll of the dice.

It's a risk. This is definitely a risk-based, data-driven system, and if the data is there to justify us, or the bean counter's justifying continuing to go to a facility, they're willing to take that risk. There's a whole discussion that goes on with this. It's not taken lightly, but finances definitely rule the decision.

... How can the public determine who is fixing that airplane and make a decision before they buy that ticket as to whether they feel that's a safe way to go?

... The assumption has to be on the part of the flying public that unless that facility is now being shut down, unless that carrier is suspended -- like what happened to American, where the fleet was put down for a period of time -- unless the FAA takes some kind of action, their confidence has to be that the FAA would have done something if they felt that the facility was not performing as they should.

Should we have that confidence?

I think by and large we need to, should have a great confidence in the work that our inspectors are doing.

The problem is ... that we can't just keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We can't keep raising attention to repeat violations and not support our inspectors and let our inspectors get out there and validate.

Every single time our inspectors have done that, where they've gotten out there and got into the field and touched the metal and validated, they're finding all sorts of things.

It's a frustration of credibility, and it's a frustration of how we've all kind of evolved to this acceptable level, because there's a false confidence in the fact that the first thing the FAA will say is: "The record speaks for itself. Show me the accidents. It's the safest time we've ever had in America. So what am I talking about?"

It's hard, because behind the scenes, it goes back to the oil drilling and all that stuff that started coming out. How could this have happened? And then the inspection reports and sign-offs and all that stuff. It is no different from our organization.

The same stuff is happening from the standpoint that we're doing our best to raise attention to the issues. There's a huge dependency on the facilities, the responsibility to comply, and this is all coming down to economics and mitigating risk, and it's very bewildering. I'm sure for your viewers it's very troubling because there is a lot of issues that, as inspectors, we're very concerned over.

Does the FAA have a list, as far as you know, of all of these outsource maintenance facilities?

As long as they're certificated.

We asked for this list under the Freedom of Information Act, and this is what we got in response. Basically it's the long way of saying: "No, it's not public record. The public doesn't have a right to see this list." ... Why the secrecy?

The secrecy, I feel confident -- although I'm not sure, but I would say -- [is] that it's driven by the airlines who do not want people to know who they're contracting to.

Why not?

Competitive reasons? I don't know. How much money they're spending? ... That's a very important question. What are they so concerned over? What would they be so worried about that we'd know who they're contracting to, unless like the IG found out --

Inspector general?

-- the inspector general has found out there is upward of 70 percent of the work being contracted all over the world but not stateside, so how confident would someone be to know that 70 percent of the work being done ... is being done by a Third World country?

I think that would strike a concern with most passengers that, "Wow, how come this location that I consider fairly unsophisticated is now charged with working with the airplane I'm flying on?"

One of the things that really gets to the nub of the issue right here is licensed mechanics versus not. You have a license, Airframe and Powerplant, A&P they call it. ... Give us a sense of what it means to have one of those licenses. This is not something you get just by clicking a few buttons on the Internet, right?

Correct. There's a significant amount of work that you have accomplished and/or you have gone to school; a significant amount of training, usually about two and a half years of training exclusive on working through every single detail of how to work on an airplane. I mean, you are the package. ...

You have to do an oral, a practical and a written test to demonstrate that you have the knowledge across the board of everything from avionics to engine and skins to seats, and you're coming in with certain credentials of eligibility to work.

At that point, it's incumbent upon whoever hires you that they must give you the specific training on whatever happens, but there's a level of confidence that you're starting from a certain standard.

If you're coming in with no certificate, there is absolutely no telling. Are you a backyard mechanic working on a lawn mower? It's irrelevant. They're still responsible for now taking you from an unknown point and giving you skill sets and training on a particular function. Big difference.

When you look at the legacy airlines' maintenance facilities, the vast majority of people there had this certificate. They're licensed. You look at the outsourced maintenance facilities, it's just the opposite. The vast majority do not. In your view, is it essential that everybody who works on an airplane have that certificate, have that license?

Thank you for asking that question, because we have worked very hard with Congress to put language in place to require that every single person who works on an aircraft used for transporting passengers have an Airframe or Powerplant as appropriate, or an A&P is required. That's for the very reason that you're talking about. There's an expectation of a higher standard, and that's how strongly we feel about that. ...

If you mandated a license, an A&P certificate for every mechanic that works on every U.S. airline, would that cripple the industry? This is an industry that is on the ropes economically.

I don't think so. I think that you have a return on investment, and if I take all those people that are doing that function and I now have three quality people who really know what they're doing, piling a bunch of people into doing this work sometimes creates more problems that you find yourself undoing, and that's that financial decision, that risk-based decision making that goes on. ...

... What Sarah MacLeod [executive director, Aeronautical Repair Station Association] said in response to this is: "It's not the license; it's the experience. I know a lot of educated idiots." What do you say?

... You've got to start someplace. You have to have an expectation that someone has gone through the ropes and demonstrated a certain level of competency, a certain skill set. You have to. I think that's an expectation that's not unreasonable. ...

... Based on what we've showed you with documentation and interviews, how would you characterize ST Mobile as an operation?

I would be deeply concerned over their viability to be any kind of consistent organization with the stuff I've seen here to the point where, pending ... investigations, they should be suspended.

We don't take that lightly, and when this is revealed, that would be an expectation on my part is that there needs to be the FBI and anybody else that comes into augment the FAA's authority to say: "You know what? Something's seriously wrong here, and we need to investigate this." ...

To the extent that they fit in to kind of a trend, there are a lot of companies of this ilk out there now, right?

I hope not to this perceived level at this point, but there's a lot of activity, I'll say that. And there's a lot of oversight and a lot of concern, and people are trying to do their job, and there's a lot of good companies out there, and I don't think you're intending to paint everything that way. ...

... Describe what ST is. Is it one of the big players, or is it kind of typical?

Very huge. They have very smartly [taken] advantage of this whole outsourcing piece. They have multi airlines that come in to them, multi hangars. I mean, this is one big organization. ...

And there's quite a few of these, frankly, along the Pacific Rim in Asia that have seized the moment here and taken advantage of lower labor rates and the fact that airplanes can move quickly to them if need be.

They were very smart, and my understanding is there's about 100 or so in the queue of other people that want to get in with the business overseas. ...

So there's no doubt where this trend is headed then.

That's right. ...

... Is the FAA tough enough?

It goes back to my comment about the inspectors are doing their best at that grunt level. They're doing what they need to be doing, but the infrastructure is just too weak -- what I believe and what PASS believes -- to provide that support, so that when the issues are raised and a concern is elevated to the point where it needs to be adjudicated, we're given the teeth to do it. ...

Your inspectors are kind of like Barney Fife, gun with no bullets.

They feel that way often. ...

You're talking about adding people. You're a union person. ... To what extent are you just doing your union duty? ... I'm sure people in the industry would say: "Look, there's no economic incentive to have a crash. No one wants a crash. That is not what we're all about. This is an incredibly safe industry that is in many respects self-policing. We don't need more inspectors."

... It is not an industry that does well with self-policing. It just needs some conscience. I think that anybody can relate to the fact that, left unattended, we'd all be going 80 miles an hour. There's speed limits that are put in place. ...

We're doing our best to do a good job, but it isn't the level that we wanted to do, so we're compromised, all because of staffing. So is it the panacea? No, but it is definitely where we see a huge weakness and being able to start to leverage our resources in such a way that has a balance for the industry.

At the end of the day, though, this is the safest form of transportation ever devised by human beings.

Amen. It is.

So is it really an issue here?

It is an issue because you can't depend on the past. You can't depend on entities and facets of our organization as well as the industry to keep doing the right things and keep degradating the margin of safety and think you're going to get the same results. ...

The industry keeps pushing the envelope. They're going for more self-regulation; they're going for more outsourcing. ... And we don't have any models to tell us what the consequences are. Something's going to happen. You can't keep changing all the variables and expect nothing's going to be the consequence to that. ...

People who fly airplanes, how concerned should they be about this trend?

... That ticket comes with a lot of confidence, and I want them to continue feeling that. When they buy that ticket, they have the confidence that inspectors are doing their job, and repair facilities are repairing at the level they should, and airlines are operating as they should, and it all comes together because there's a role that everybody plays and an expectation.

Should they have that confidence now?

I think they should be concerned that they have paid well for the infrastructure that now is starting to weaken, and that there needs to be an expectation that attention is given to what we're raising; that this isn't a perfect system, and it is degradating the margin of safety down to the point where something needs to be done to shore it back up again. ...

As a consumer, if I want to go find a doctor, I can look up the doctor. I can look up the car dealership that's going to work on my car. There's any number of ways I can find out how business is being done in a place that I choose to do business with. In this case, the airlines are making it impossible for the consumer to understand how that airplane is fixed. Why?

I think one of the things that has come out a lot was the concern over proprietary information. ... The other piece, I think, they're deeply concerned that the public will see just how much is being outsourced. It's no longer really that legacy carrier and the confidence of a United or whatever doing all that work. The majority of the work is outsourced, and a large percentage of it is overseas.

How much?

Each one of the carriers is different. I think I've heard numbers from 20 to 30 percent is being done overseas. I think it's much higher than that, but up to 70 percent total. ...

Does the FAA issue a report card to these maintenance facilities?

They have to evaluate every single system and then basically give a report card of how they view the safety of that organization, and they give a number from 1 to 10. ...

This 1 through 10, or zero to 10, presumably gets reported to the FAA?

Yes.

Do the airlines know this number?

The information is given to the certificate-managing office for the FAA for each of the airlines. They have that information. And then it's up to them to engage the facility on how are you doing your audits, were you aware of the fact that there's some concerns over this repair facility, that kind of thing.

So they may or may not share that number with the airline? Is this an internal number, in other words?

It's internal to the fact that it's part of the documentation that identifies all the inspection criteria and the results of their inspections.

... Should the public know these numbers?

I think they should, and certainly in a transparency environment, that gives people the comfort, and we certainly rank airlines based upon on-time performance, so why wouldn't they be able to have that? I think that would put a little pressure on the facilities to do their best. ...

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Posted January 18, 2011

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