Is Outsourcing Air Maintenance Safe?
Is Maintenance Up in the Air or on Solid Ground?
A Look inside the Hangars
April 14, 2008, interview by Carl Finamore with the Hon. John Goglia (ret), National Transportation & Safety Board
JOHN GOGLIA IS AN internationally recognized expert in aviation maintenance and aircraft operations. In August 1995, he was sworn in as a Member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). He was the first working Airframe & Power plant (A&P) mechanic to serve on the Safety Board.
Before his Senate confirmation, he was employed by USAir and was the recipient of the prestigious 1994 Industry Aviation Mechanic of the Year Award. During his years as a mechanic, he acted for several decades as the International Association of Machinists, (IAMAW) principal specialist on aviation issues, as liaison to the FAA, NTSB, DOT and other executive branch agencies and to the U.S. Congress.
CF: John, let’s begin with the question of aircraft maintenance outsourcing which was mentioned as a hot issue in the recent April 2008 Congressional Hearings. Currently the major carriers contract out 53% of maintenance, up from 37% in 1996. Should the public be concerned?
Mr. Goglia: As it stands now, yes it is a concern. If airlines had meaningful on-the-scene management, then our comfort level would be higher.
For example, on the good side, if you went into a hanger of a major carrier today, where work is being done by their own workforce, you would see a manager overseeing the whole operation along with supervisors for mechanics and supervisors for the mechanic inspectors.
CF: This sounds pretty good. How about once the work leaves the carrier-owned maintenance bases?
Mr. Goglia: That’s where the concerns begin. Repair station vendors contracted by the major carriers do not have anywhere near this coverage. If visiting one of their hangars, you are likely to find only one person from the major airline trying to cover its vendor’s whole facility, even if the facility is three shifts, seven days a week.
CF: What about unlicensed vendors who perform maintenance?
Mr. Goglia: That‘s even worse. Sometimes FAA-licensed Repair Stations send components to facilities that do not possess a repair station certificate issued by the FAA.
While that component is in this unlicensed facility, there are serious concerns on how it is being repaired.
For example, are appropriate standardized manuals being used, are approved parts being used (FAA estimates that over 520,000 counterfeit parts are in circulation), are proper inspections being made of the work and, finally, is there final testing of the end product?
CF: The FAA has received some criticism on another issue after it installed a new electronic surveillance system, dubbed Air Transportation Oversight System (ATOS). Critics claim that it does not provide enough “hands on” inspection of maintenance work. What’s your thought?
Mr. Goglia: ATOS is only a beginning, but a necessary one. Carriers are expanding much more rapidly than FAA Congressional funding. It’s impossible for the FAA to monitor airlines in the same way as we did 30 years ago.
We need to provide additional tools to help guide the inspectors as they do their job. ATOS is such a tool. It is being improved and updated continuously.
It is a computer matrix system that looks at maintenance performance data and evaluates the information for any unusual fluctuations or deviations. For example, if a facility is ordering an unusual number of any part or component, it would raise a red flag for an inspector. Why, what is happening?
ATOS would provide guidance to the inspector on that issue.
CF: But doesn’t the system rely on honest reporting by the carriers and vendors?
Mr. Goglia: Yes, of course. We all know that can be a big problem. False data can skew the results and even worse, corrupt the whole system. The FAA is aware of these possibilities and is continuously working on solutions. Right now, they are devising a way to obtain information from a number of different sources so that the data can be cross checked.
CF: I want to ask a question that draws on your decades of experience promoting air safety. How well are the engineering design, maintenance, FAA oversight, the human factor (controllers, flight and ground crews etc.) and other aspects of the system working right now?
Mr. Goglia: Exceptionally well. There was big improvement in the cockpit with the addition of the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). But we have a way to go in the hangars.
CF: Finally then, how would you rate safety today? Is it better than even 10 years ago.
Mr. Goglia: No question skies are safer today. Be we can still do better without breaking the bank.
CF: Thank you John, for the service and expertise you provide to secure better safety in the skies.
Carl Finamore is former President (ret), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org