POLITICS

Security lax at overseas airline maintenance facilities

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Barbara Hollingsworth

Uncertified mechanics in foreign countries routinely perform MROs (maintenance, repair and overhaul) of commercial jetliners at unsecured facilities, former Federal Aviation Administration inspector Rich Wyeroski told The Examiner. Besides the obvious security problems, they are also more prone to miss problems like tiny cracks in the fuselage that could turn into major safety hazards later - such as the three-foot long hole that forced the emergency landing of Southwest Airlines Flight 812 earlier this month. 

A similar incident on a Southwest flight headed to Baltimore happened in 2009

Months before, the Dallas-based budget carrier agreed to a $7.5 million settlement for operating planes that had missed required safety inspections. 

“A lot of the major airlines, including US Air, United, Jet Blue, and Southwest use Third World facilities in China, El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, and even the Middle East to save money,” Wyeroski told The Examiner. “But the mechanics, who make between $400 and $600 a month, don’t have to speak English or be able to read the maintenance manuals. Just one guy at the facility has to have airframe and powerplant (A&P) certification inspection authorization, and he doesn’t even have to be a U.S. citizen. Meanwhile, about 4,000 experienced mechanics with A&P certification here in the U.S. have lost their jobs.” 

Offshore maintenance was allowed under Nick Sabatini, FAA former assistant administrator for aviation safety, who was forced out in 2008 after House Transportation Committee chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., accused him of misleading Congress.

Wyeroski, who was fired after reporting a near-collision in Long Island, says the FAA reported an 81 percent increase in runway incursions, technical errors by air traffic controllers, and near-misses after Sabatini’s departure. “He was messing with the numbers,” he charged, adding that Sabatini’s replacement is a lawyer with no hands-on aviation experience.

In the U.S., FAA inspectors do spot inspections of maintenance facilities at least two or three times a year, but for budgetary and political reasons, “inspectors don’t really have access to repair stations overseas,” Wyeroski pointed out. “They have to give two to three weeks’ notice – and they can’t even go to China.”

Which means that passengers are subjected to a more thorough security screening by latex-gloved TSA employees than the aircraft they are about to board.

Ironically, American Airlines - one of the few U.S. carriers that does not send its fleet overseas for major maintenance - is the one facing a $10 million fine from the FAA for relatively minor problems that do not pose safety hazards, while the FAA allows uncertified foreign mechanics to take passenger aircraft apart without even requiring fingerprint or background checks.

“I’ve complained to the Department of Transportation, but they ignore me,” Wyeroski, who is also a certified aircraft mechanic and licensed pilot, added. “Security is very lax at these offshore maintenance hangars, where the planes are completely gutted and the fuel tanks are taken out. With today’s technology, I don’t have to tell you what a terrorist could hide inside them.”

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Barbara Hollingsworth

Local Opinion Editor
The Washington Examiner