19 January 2011


In the movie The Right Stuff, one of the Apollo astronauts remarks to another, in their capsule just before liftoff, words to the effect that "Here we are, sitting on top of a multi-story rocket filled with highly explosive fuel, all of it manufactured and assembled by the lowest bidders."

That is precisely the situation revealed in a PBS Frontline segment titled Flying Cheaper (click on "Play the entire program"), with regard to the heavy maintenance performed on the fleets of the major U.S. airlines. Ten years ago, such maintenance was typically done by licensed mechanics and engineers employed directly by each airline. Now, the majority of the work is outsourced to non-specialist companies, many of them not located in this country. Many issues are raised, among them disparate management practices, quality control, inter-language misunderstandings, security, and the training and qualifications of maintenance providers. Complicating the situation is the pressure placed upon maintenance workers to complete the work in the shortest possible time, even if it means cutting corners, falsifying records or ignoring required repairs altogether.

Sloppy work, or work not performed, results in unsafe aircraft. Poorly trained, unlicensed, non-English-speaking mechanics are used, with the full knowledge of the FAA. Agency oversight and enforcement are minimal. FAA field inspectors are frustrated with the poor training of maintenance personnel, by unmarked or illegal aircraft parts, and by maintenance facilities being given weeks of advanced notice of an impending inspection, allowing them to sidestep the law.

As with so much else in life, it comes down to money. At every level, company policies borrow from safety margins in order to maximize profit. And the losers? -- those air travelers who risk their lives by innocently boarding a flight, expecting proficient pilots, safe maintenance, and a flight conducted with comfort and efficiency. Increasingly, those expectations are being sacrificed, resulting not only in passengers being treated like packed sardines, but now being treated like packed disposable sardines. Spectacular airline crashes, which were once the exception, will predictably become more common unless Congress and the President pass laws to reform the system. But when so many politicians are in the pocket of wealthy companies and lobbies, how likely is that? Air travel once was an adventure. Now it is a misery.

All of which makes me more determined than ever to get my private pilot's license, and bypass commercial air travel altogether.

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