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Some Claim Airline Maintenance Outsourcing Is Dangerous Trend

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DENVER (CBS4) – Some major airlines that serve Denver don’t get their maintenance work completed by one of the airline’s own Federal Aviation Administration certified mechanics, instead they send their planes to other countries for maintenance. Critics said this could be a dangerous trend.

On January 23, 2009, a U.S. Airways flight from Omaha to Phoenix was diverted to land in Denver. A pressure seal on a cabin door was leaking. The plane had recently been serviced in El Salvador, where someone had put part of the door seal on backward.

“We have a lot of instances that the public just doesn’t hear about,” said Teamsters Local 455 representative John Hennelly.

Hennelly represents Teamster Airline Mechanics, which blocked Frontier Airlines in court from sending its planes to El Salvador for maintenance.

“It’s not one of those jobs where you want to have the low bidder, if you will, I mean, there’s no AAA in the airline industry. You can’t pull over and say I got a flat or a problem, what do I do?” said Hennelly.

Frontier was sold to Republic Airways, which outsources its maintenance within the U.S.

Mark Adams, a Frontier mechanic, said the crew often has to fix the planes when they return.

“They had a galley drain that didn’t get hooked up. When they ran water in the airplane the whole back of the airplane filled up,” said Adams.

Recently one Frontier plane had the passenger seats installed in the wrong slots, causing the plane to raise and dip while flying, according to Frontier mechanics. On another plane, a part of the hydraulic system was installed backwards.

“Up became down, down became up. Luckily they found this before they left the ground and used the other hydraulic system,” said Hennelly.

One mechanic who worked on Frontier and other planes at an outsourcing location asked that he not be identified.

“Those mechanics that came in really had no experience. They were managers of Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s and they just had a desire to work on an aircraft,” said the mechanic.

Frontier would not discuss specific incidents and first released this statement, “All the equipment used in our operations is properly maintained and all our people are properly trained.”

On Thursday night Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk provided another statement, which is as follows:

“All our heavy check maintenance is performed in the United States and is performed by an outsourced service provider. All other maintenance is performed in house. As an added point of information, our heavy maintenance … that which is outsourced … comprises only about 10% of our annual maintenance; the balance … 90% of our maintenance … is performed in house.

“Frontier’s prime objective is the safety of our guests and our employees. We do that by, among other things, ensuring that our aircraft, indeed all the equipment used in our operations is properly maintained and that all our people are properly trained. We also have a highly disciplined and proven process for making our operations management aware of even the most minor concern about the safety of our operation.”

Southwest Airlines has been sending its planes to the Aeroman Facility in El Salvador for the past year.

Southwest said, “Aeroman has surpassed its expectations with time, costs and reliability.”

Denver’s largest airline, United Airlines, sends its 747s and 777s to Beijing, China for its major overhauls. Overseas facilities are licenses by the FAA but many mechanics are not. Some may not be able to read the English language manuals.

Outsourcing maintenance has been called an accident waiting to happen by critics. The National Transportation Safety Board cited outsourced maintenance as a factor in the 2003 crash in Charlotte, North Carolina that killed 21 people.

The FAA does conduct inspections at the outsourced maintenance locations, but because there are now some 700 in places like Brazil, the Philippines, Argentina and Indonesia, inspectors told CBS4 Investigator Rick Sallinger they are barely able to get to many of them even once a year.

The airlines mentioned in this article declined to provide interviews on camera regarding the subject.

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