PBS Special Investigates the Outsourcing of Aircraft Maintenance

PBS FRONTLINE and the Investigative Reporting Workshop examined the growing trend of outsourcing major airline repair work to lower-cost independent maintenance operations in the special Flying Cheaper.

The segment points out issues at one facility, but the safety records of US airlines suggest air travel is safer than ever before.  What is the truth of the situation industry-wide?  Obviously, finding glaring issues is good for production and entertainment, but how many of the major airlines are turning to incompetent subcontractors?  Is this more of an issue for regional jet carriers?  International carriers?

Obviously, airlines are in the business of transporting passengers and cargo.  The aircraft, interiors, in-flight entertainment, avionics, engines, etc are all built by specialized sub-contractors.  It makes sense that the maintenance of all those items could be handled with more care and at a lower cost by a specialized subcontractor, and true free-market competition has always demonstrated benefits.  

As flyers we forget how dynamic the air transport industry can be.  We like to have a carrier you can trust to take you anywhere, whether that be Dubai or Jackson Hole.  Delta, United, and Continental provide that service, but to do it well they need to have a very diverse fleet of aircraft for all the different routings and passenger capacities.  This means lots of different training for pilots, flight attendants, ground crews, and maintenance crews.

Look at United’s mainline fleet.  Maintenance operations need to support the A319, A320, B744, B752, B763, and B772.  Scheduling the right crews to the right aircraft is inefficient.  For example, United only flies 24 B744s, so what does a B744 trained maintenance crew do when all the B744s do not need maintenance or FAA checks?  You could train them on another airframe, but it increases the likelihood of getting confused or having to more frequently look up information which wastes time.

Rather imagine a maintenance company that specializes in B744s and services United, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, and Singapore.  All are members of Star Alliance so there is a willingness to cooperate.  All operate B744s and some airlines only in the single digits.  The maintenance company would have facilities across the globe to support these clients so it makes relocating aircraft for repair significantly easier.  You have crews who become experts on one airframe.  It is better and cheaper for everyone involved.