Nobody knows yet exactly what caused two Boeing 737 Max 8 passenger jets to crash within just five months, killing everyone on board. That’s going to take intense and prolonged investigations by aviation experts who will scrutinize the flights and aircraft involved from every possible angle.
Those highly technical and operational reviews are essential to saving lives and preserving the aviation industry.
But the Federal Aviation Administration’s slow response to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines’ crashes demonstrates that we need to look not just on these recent incidents but at the relationship between the FAA, aircraft manufacturers and U.S.A.-flagged passenger airlines.
Aviation officials grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 until voice and data recordings from the most recent catastrophe can be evaluated, zeroing in on possible similarities that might reveal some problem with the aircraft’s equipment or technology. In so doing, they proved that safety is their top priority. But it took the FAA several days, and an apparent order from President Trump, to act definitively. Over that time, it allowed American, Southwest and other airlines to keep Max 8s in the air.
That’s outrageous. It also begs a series of questions Congress should raise.
What is the Federal Aviation Administration doing — or failing to do — in terms of regulating conglomerates like American Airlines, Southwest and United, which fly Boeing jets? Are these airlines being held to the highest safety standards possible, or are they being allowed to cut corners to satisfy airline executives’ insatiable lust for bigger profits? Are airline passengers getting all the information they should have when, as consumers, they are deciding which airline to fly with their loved ones?
The Transport Workers Union of America believes our federal government allows the airline industry to take unnecessary risks. Airline mechanics in the United States must be FAA-certified, are subject to criminal background checks and random drug testing. But American Airlines and others registered in the United States are permitted by our government to offshore billions of dollars worth of critically important maintenance work to facilities located on foreign soil — where mechanics are not required to have the highest level of expertise and are not subject to the same level of government scrutiny as in America.
American Airlines planes returning from overseas maintenance, for example, routinely have safety problems, which are then identified and corrected by our AA mechanics.
Drugs are hugely problematic as well. It’s not uncommon for our mechanics to find caches of drugs placed into USA flagged aircraft while being maintained on foreign soil. Those bricks of cocaine could easily be explosives.
These foreign-based maintenance and overhaul facilities are attractive to our domestic airlines for one main reason: profit margins. Unlicensed mechanics in countries like Brazil, El Salvador and China are paid much less than their American counterparts, enabling airlines that are already incredibly profitable to make even more money for their executives and stockholders.
An outsourcing report conducted last year on behalf of The Transport Workers Union of America by Ridge Global, a firm founded by former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, found that “Foreign repair stations present risks that domestic ones do not. These risks are due in part, to how laws and regulations are applied. We concluded that the safety and security concerns of commercial aviation are better addressed when the repair and maintenance is done in the United States.”
Regardless of what caused these most recent accidents, Congress should take a fresh look and hold hearings on the overall issues of regulation and aircraft maintenance. We urge them to consider these actions:
- Curb the amount of scheduled maintenance conducted outside the U.S.
- Mandate that any offshored work be done with background checks, drug testing and licensing requirements equivalent to what the FAA mandates in the U.S.
- Expand the airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights. Airlines should be required to inform passengers where individual aircraft have recently been repaired, maintained and inspected, especially if the work was performed on foreign soil.
- Investigate how the FAA’s safety standards and practices compare to their counterparts in other countries.
The FAA’s regulatory actions and inactions, along with the outsourcing of aircraft maintenance, deserve closer scrutiny. We need the federal government to take every step possible to ensure that our national airspace system is safe.?