Unions, Airlines at Odds Over Foreign Maintenance of Planes

Garamendi discovered that Southwest plane that made emergency landing was serviced in Brazil, introduces disclosure bill.

A Southwest Airlines plane sits on the runway at Philadelphia International Airport after it made an emergency landing on April 17.
AP Photo/Corey Perrine
Harrison Cramer
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Harrison Cramer
June 13, 2018, 4:33 p.m.

When Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults was forced to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia in April, she was praised for her heroism under duress. But the investigation into exactly what caused the accident—the first fatal mishap in the U.S. airline industry since 2009—has only just begun.

One lawmaker is pointing the finger at a maintenance facility half a world away, in Brazil, and the work that it performed six years ago.

“That maintenance was done in Brazil, that engine maintenance,” said Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The last “heavy maintenance” on the CFM engine was conducted by GE Celma Brazil in November 2012, according to information supplied to Garamendi’s office by National Transportation Safety Board investigators. Overhaul of the fan blades—including the one that triggered the explosion on the flight—was performed at Propulsion Technologies International in Miramar, Florida, Garamendi’s office said.

On June 7, Garamendi and Republican Rep. Dan Donovan introduced the Aircraft Maintenance Outsourcing Disclosure Act, which requires airlines to disclose when and where aircraft last underwent heavy maintenance. Such notices would be printed online, at the point of sale for tickets, and on the airline tickets themselves. Garamendi said that overseas maintenance had been a concern of his for a while, and that he hopes the legislation will help keep U.S. consumers safe. Companion legislation was introduced in the Senate by Democrat Claire McCaskill.

A spokesperson for GE denied that Propulsion Technologies International serviced the fan blades, but could not disclose where in the U.S. the blades were serviced, because the engine was owned by Southwest Airlines. NTSB did not comment, except to say the investigation is ongoing.

Among the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements are that aircraft mechanics undergo civilian, military, or on-the-job training, and take oral and practical tests. In an email, an FAA spokesperson said that foreign repair stations are regulated “not only by the FAA and aircraft operators, but also by international civil-aviation authorities,” and that the stations must renew their FAA certificate every 12 to 24 months. “The FAA only certifies the number of foreign repair stations it can effectively monitor,” the spokesperson said.

GE spokesman Rick Kennedy categorically denied that foreign maintenance facilities were unsafe. “For anyone to suggest that any CFM-GE-operated site anywhere outside the United States are not performing to FAA standards is blatantly false,” Kennedy said. “I would challenge [Garamendi] to go to the site,” he continued. “I would challenge him to look at the safety record of that site. That’s an insult to … the people that run that site.” The GE Celma facility in Brazil processes over 300 CF6, CFM56, and CF34-10E aircraft engines annually, according to a 2014 GE marketing video.

When asked for a response, Garamendi said the Transportation Department’s inspector general had found “several discrepancies” between FAA regulations at foreign and domestic maintenance facilities. He cited a 2008 report, which drew on “drug and alcohol testing for employees, TSA threat assessment for mechanics, and unannounced inspections of facilities.” These are all required at domestic facilities, Garamendi maintained.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Organization supports Garamendi’s bill, as do a number of other unions representing workers in the airline industry, including the Transport Workers Union of America, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. If passed, Garamendi’s legislation could convince some airlines to bring maintenance back into the United States. But Garamendi described the return of U.S. jobs as a “secondary benefit.” The average salary for an aircraft mechanic in the United States in 2017 was roughly $61,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an email, AFMA National Director Bret Oestreich said that the union has worked for years to “combat foreign outsourcing.” Much of the sensitive safety work at foreign repair stations, Oestreich said, “is performed by unlicensed workers who lack the knowledge, training, or ability to grasp the English language, the uniform language of aviation.” Oestreich said that the current legislation helps “level the playing field,” but that more should be done to “effectively limit, or eliminate, the use of foreign repair stations.”

Boeing declined to comment on the legislation, but Vaughn Jennings, a spokesperson for the industry lobbying group Airlines for America, said in a statement that “aviation is a global industry,” and that access to domestic and international repair stations “is a crucial part of doing business.” The industry’s “unprecedented safety record,” Jennings said, confirms that “high-quality aircraft maintenance is available throughout the world.”

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