Who is fixing your plane, and how? Frontline dumpster-dives into repair outsourcing

[Video Link]

On the newly revamped PBS program Frontline last night, an investigative report by Miles O'Brien (co-produced with the Investigative Reporting Workshop) on the "outsourcing of major airline repair work to lower-cost independent maintenance operations in the U.S and abroad."

[FRONTLINE] was invited to visit AMECO, one of Asia's largest MROs, in Beijing, which overhauls United Airlines' wide-bodied fleet [Boeing 747 and 777]. FRONTLINE wanted to talk with workers about the quality of their workforce, the competitiveness of the industry and their regulatory compliance records. AMECO cancelled the trip at the last minute.

FRONTLINE also investigates ST Aerospace Mobile in Alabama, which now does heavy repair work for several major airlines, including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways. Through interviews with company mechanics and an examination of both government and company records, the investigation raises serious questions about the quality and experience of the workforce; the use of foreign workers with limited English proficiency; and the alleged use of unauthorized airline parts. One ST employee worries that the current system of maintenance and repair will end in "a smoking hole at the end of the runway."

After watching footage of FRONTLINE's interviews with mechanics at ST Aerospace in Alabama and reading company documents, veteran FAA inspector Linda Goodrich tells FRONTLINE, "Something's seriously wrong here, and we need to investigate this."

Miles is doing a live chat as I publish this post (12pm ET), you may want to pop in.

Video, deeper background, lots of meaty data here: FLYING CHEAPER (pbs.org).

Here's an introduction to the piece. Miles is on Twitter, has a website here, and there's a New York Times piece this week about his report and the broader retooling of Frontline.

This piece is a follow-up to Flying Cheap, his earlier investigation into larger airlines' outsourcing of flights to obscure regional airlines.


  1. Yikes! First baby swinging, now foreigners doing airplane maintenance. I’m like TOTALLY outraged!

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. If you think that this is bad, wait until you see the motley crew that actually builds the engines in the first place.

  3. See, this is what I believe actual journalism is. Frontline is usually the first example I will give to people on how reporting can be objective and quite thorough…

  4. Everything will be fine as long as no one on the flight has been irradiated and/or groped or has more than 3 oz. of shampoo in their carry-on.

  5. Seriously people….you all are making fun of this stuff?

    It’s shit like this that upsets me. The American ideology of getting the best bargain or cheapest ticket makes things like this happen. It’s greed on both sides. The company has to remain profitable, and has to make those fairs as cheap as absolutely possible. Well here’s the result. Outsourced repair people who are probably working long hours and not making a reasonable pay for what their skill level could be.

    It’s one thing to have a mechanic shop on every corner. I can pick and choose until I find one that is competent. This isn’t my car, it’s a giant steel plane carrying me and others several miles off the Earth’s surface. If something goes wrong up there it has the potential to be very very bad. I don’t need the people who fly them or work on them to be tired/upset/or incompetent.

  6. Glad to see that Miles is back out there again. He’s really a good reporter and I’m glad to see he’s using the tools again on a national stage.

  7. Do you mean to tell me that in the (failed) experiment of Capitalism, where nothing – NOTHING – is more important than profit, that a company would low-bid something as important to safety as airline repair? Say it isn’t so.

  8. dont worry airlines, republicans will refuse to fund any regulation or oversight and then only due so after a much costlier disaster occurs with the added bonus of lots of destruction and human suffering and death. and then theyll say, “no one could have predicted.”

  9. A relative of mine works for a company on the east coast that does repairs for several airlines. It’s his job to rubber stamp things to verify that the work/inspections have been done. From talking to him it’s pretty clear that the nature of his job doesn’t allow him to know for sure that the work was done and that the guys doing the work have LOTS of reasons to do things quickly and/or not do them at all. So, yeah. Basically the chain of responsibility is so very, very long that everyone has some plausible deniability should something bad happen.

    The airline covers its ass by farming the work out to a bunch of small companies, and any given small company is unlikely to be involved in an accident AND the FDA maintains enough distance to point fingers. So that’s a win-win. Or, uh, something.

    We’re just lucky that the birds are, in general, REALLY well built and failure tolerant.

  10. I actually watched the show last night. It was horrible enough that I had to turn it off. I found it biased as well as racist and xenophobic.

    I will admit that the show did bring to light some serious issues. The big one being accountability, and the fact that the pressure to constantly be faster/cheaper than everyone will erode safety.

    I thought the FDA spokesperson was correct, however despite the negative spin they tried to spin her. Not everyone that works has to be licensed, only those that need to. Assuming that is enforced that is, but you can say the same for any license anyway.

    Anyway what I found disturbing was all the talk during the program about “people who can even speak English”, “Foreigner”, “How can they read a Boeing maintenance manual”, and the idea that no one but those in the US are qualified to do such work. Then ironically enough the only plant they got access to was one in the US in Mobile Alabama. Where they got on tape US working admitting to just signing off on work not done due to time constraints. Of course they again had to show a healthy dose of visa workers, etc…

    Anyway I got the general idea that greed was the culprit of the risk despite all the other BS in the piece. I found it hard to believe it could make TV it was so bad. It’s one thing if the subjects you are interviewing are biased and racist, but when when the interviewer is as well…

    1. I do recall one of the reasons a Japanese auto manufacturer located a plant in Canada instead of Alabama was the significantly better literacy level of the available labor pool.

      I suspect the Canadian national healthcare system removing thousands of dollars from the cost burden of each car produced had a bit to do with it as well.

  11. Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd.(ST Mobile parent company) said profit rose 9 percent in the first quarter (2009) while revenue rose only 3 percent, an improvement that executives attributed to increased efficiency and sales of products with higher profits.

    Another example of capatialism at it’s finest, profit for profit’s sake… at any cost

  12. I WORK at STAM. Not all of the mechanics are shady. I take pride in my work and refuse to bow down to any of the managerial “pressures”. Yes there are bad managers and bad mechanics, but you can find those at your local automotive repair center. Ever pay $12 for a sprits of throttle body cleaner when the entire can costs $12; or pay “environmental” charges when no envireonmental work was done? Ever had the 19 point inspection and leave with tail lights out and no windshield washer fluid?……

  13. And cutting on maintenance is stupid also, because a crashed plane costs WAY more than maintaining it properly…

  14. Hopefully this is just a clever campaign to prepare the flying public for a new upgrade program: For a small fee you can upgrade to a plane maintained by certified mechanics using parts that have never been in a dumpster.

  15. > Glad to see that Miles is back out there again. He’s really a
    > good reporter and I’m glad to see he’s using the tools again on a
    > national stage.

    Hope he’s better at reporting than transporting!
    He always seemed to be goldbricking at his old job.
    Then he scored a union gig on DS9, then, we didn’t hear from him….
    All the best to him & Keiko.

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