Friday, April 15, 2011

The FAA: A Modest Proposal

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has its share of troubles, what with exhausted air-traffic controllers falling asleep on the job and the ATC boss resigning, disturbing in-flight incidents related to faulty aircraft maintenance popping up with increasing frequency and conservative budget-hawks threatening to slash $4 billion USD from the agency's budget. Bills to reauthorize and fund the FAA are before Congress right now, and the stakes for millions of travelers flying within, to and from the United States couldn't be higher.

One thing Congress should do is heed a call from the Transport Workers Union ( to bring overseas maintenance operations entirely under uniform FAA standards ( Presently, U.S. carriers outsource aircraft maintenance to a high degree, and drug and alcohol testing, identity checks and inspection of facilities is not always carefully carried out in the dozens of non-U.S. facilities that work on planes for U.S. carriers. This, the TWU charges, imperils safety.

A contextural note: The quality of maintenance does not derive primarily from where the work is done, but how it is done. FAA inspectors are authorized to visit non-U.S. facilities, some of which are very good. Countries such as Germany and Singapore, which do plenty of maintenance, do first-rate work. Moreover, there are some smaller facilities in the U.S., itself, that do not meet standards as rigorous as those of the major hubs. As it is, FAA inspectors complain they they do not have adequate staffing to oversee all the places they are charged with visiting.

All major U.S. airlines do some non-U.S. work. American Airlines does the least, with only 12 percent in 2009 (the last year for which government and industry numbers are available), according to data compiled by the union. The Northwest unit of Delta Air Lines, with 61 percent of its maintenance done overseas, outsources the most, with US Airways right behind with 60 percent, according to the TWU. The average of seven carriers reviewed by the union, whose members work on planes, was about 40 percent.

According to an April 6 report in the Dallas News, "Workers in overseas repair facilities, working on U.S. aircraft used by U.S. passengers, are not subject to routine background checks or drug and alcohol tests. At least one member of Al Qaeda was found working at a major maintenance facility in Singapore in 2003.''

Then, the kicker: "The faulty procedures, which allowed these serious lapses in security, have not been addressed and will not be corrected by pending FAA reauthorization without amendment,'' according to the newspaper (

Amend it, then. This sounds like a modest, and reasonable, proposal considering the stakes. Lives are at risk. If it takes an amendment, amend. If it takes a few dollars more, spend them - audit and check that they are smartly spent, but spend them.

There are millions of reasons why. Behind every one of those reasons is the face and name of a traveler.

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