Shop Notes

Insiders reveal more airline maintenance problems

Posted: Feb. 3, 2011 | Tags: Investigative Reporting Workshop

The Jan. 18 broadcast of Flying Cheaper, which showed how major airlines’ outsourcing of maintenance has led to safety concerns, ignited a lively debate on FRONTLINE's discussion board. And once again, we have received tips from insiders who have furthered our reporting. The following recent post alerted us to potentially more problems with US Airways planes serviced at ST Aerospace Mobile, which was the focus of Flying Cheaper:

“k Lets start a little list here! These are just the things I have seen in our station the past three weeks. The one thing these aircraft have in common is . . . They all just came out of overhaul at . . . you guessed it MAE/ST aerospace.

1. Airbus A330. Slat gouges from fasteners in the leading edge being installed but not tightened.

2. Airbus A330. Missing fasteners on engine pylon fairing. Plus the ones installed were too short. Didn't adhere to the three thread rule. This was on both engines.
3. Airbus A330. All emergency O2 canisters missing on one aircraft. This one was flown back to MAE/ST for the corrective action.

3. Airbus A330. Nose landing gear turned 90 degrees on landing in London.

4. Airbus A330. in route to Tel Aviv diverted to Boston with a total loss Green system hydraulics.

5. Airbus A330. Three aircraft with leaking fuel panels in the tail.”

US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder neither confirmed nor denied the incidents, adding, “At no time has safety been compromised as a result of our use of third parties that perform some maintenance on US Airways aircraft.”

John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member, said a source inside had confirmed the incidents.

“They are trying to find out what went wrong first off,” Goglia said. “And since the FAA is aware of it, they are trying to limit the impact, the exposure.”

At the time of posting this update, the FAA had not responded to inquiries about the incidents.

ST Mobile President Joseph Ng said the company was not aware of these findings except for the one pertaining to the leaking fuel panels, which he noted was covered in Flying Cheaper.  “We do not wish to comment on findings that we are not familiar with,” he said. “ST Aerospace Mobile is committed to safety and compliance.”

We initially discovered problems with US Airways planes serviced at ST Aerospace from leaked internal safety memos that revealed fuel leaks, which could have resulted in “serious aircraft mishaps.”

During our investigation for Flying Cheaper, we spoke with more than 15 airplane mechanics inside ST — from FAA  licensed supervisors to foreign, unlicensed mechanics — who expressed concerns about the quality of work leaving the repair facility at ST Mobile. Besides internal ST safety memos, we also obtained FAA inspection reports dating back to 2003 that document inspectors’ repeated concerns.

Goglia said these most recent alleged findings show two things: “It shows that there's a quality problem in that facility, and second, that the oversight, the rules that regulate how they outsource, are not working,” Goglia said.

Kari Barber, a researcher for Flying Cheaper, is working on a master’s degree in film and video studies at American University.

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