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Viewpoint

Last reviewed: June 2011

Here, a monthly perspective from Consumers Union on the latest challenges—and possible solutions—facing U.S. consumers today. See archived installments of Viewpoint.

 

Hidden airline dangers

Airplane above a runway
Safer skies
Airplane maintenance must be more closely monitored, Consumers Union believes.
Photograph by Kelly James

A lot of passengers are unhappy about airlines these days. In Best & worst airlines you’ll read about the experiences of almost 15,000 subscribers who’ve recently flown. We tapped into quite a bit of dissatisfaction, particularly over the issue of unexpected fees for baggage and other services. But in fact, the most serious concerns remain hidden from view.

Consumers Union was the only consumer group invited to join the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee formed last year by the Department of Transportation. We were pleased that our suggestions for passenger protections were included among the advisory committee’s final recommendations. But the panel, composed mainly of aviation-industry stakeholders, didn’t adopt our recommendations for improving oversight of outsourced airline maintenance.

Overseas and not overseen

By 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration was overseeing 4,858 certificated repair stations; 731 of them were outside the U.S., including 59 in Latin America and 155 in Asia.

Consumer Reports first questioned FAA oversight of outsourced repair facilities in our March 2007 issue. Then industry insiders, including front-line government safety inspectors, started telling us that budget cuts were possibly eroding the FAA’s ability to adequately monitor repair facilities. Among the worries: a lack of compliance at repair facilities, mechanics who are unlicensed, substandard security procedures, and failure to conduct pre-employment drug tests.

In 2008, outsourcing accounted for 64 percent of airlines’ total maintenance budget. The next year, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation told Congress, “Since 2003, we have consistently found that FAA’s oversight of aircraft repair facilities is not robust enough to ensure that outsourced repairs meet FAA standards.” The Government Accountability Office and Congress have raised the issue as well.

Despite an unprecedented safe era in U.S. aviation, this is no time to relax. As we went to press, some leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives were calling for budget cuts at the FAA and proposing a laissez-faire “risk-based” approach that calls for the FAA administrator to inspect foreign repair stations where “identified risks” warrant inspection. But how will inspectors know about identified risks if they don’t regularly visit those facilities? We’ll be watching this issue closely.