America's airlines send planes to El Salvador, China for service by undertrained technicians

If you have your plane fixed in the USA, the FAA requires that your maintenance crew be proficient in English (the language of aviation manuals), and that you admit FAA spot-inspectors at any time. But shift your maintenance to brand new facilities that were hastily spun up El Salvador, China and Mexico, FAA inspectors can only visit after applying for a visa and giving you lots of advance notice.

Meanwhile, the mechanics servicing the planes are unlikely to meet FAA standards for English proficiency and will be struggling to make sense of the complex documentation for the aircraft they service. Despite this, the airlines are stepping up the practice, and pocketing the savings from replacing US mechanics with offshore counterparts.

There is no systematic data-collection about the impact of this practice on the airworthiness of the carriers' fleets, and in at least some cases, offshore maintenance has resulted in terrifying air-disasters, like the China Airlines Boeing 737 that exploded after takeoff. US maintenance crews report frequently discovering stupid mistakes made by their counterparts at offshore facilities.

The DOT has repeatedly asked the FAA to increase the stringency of its reporting requirements, but without much luck.

In addition to sending work offshore, airlines are also outsourcing more maintenance work—including heavy maintenance—to private contractors in the U.S. Many of the issues that plague the foreign shops—unlicensed mechanics, workers who don’t speak English, and poor workmanship—are also present at some of these private American repair shops. The F.A.A. at least has the capability to inspect domestic facilities more frequently than it does those overseas. (Despite frequent attempts, the F.A.A. did not respond to requests for information or comment on the issues raised in this story.)

The reality is that from now on it’s going to be up to the airlines to police themselves. With the F.A.A. starved for funds, it will be left to the airlines to oversee the heavy maintenance of their aircraft. Have you noticed that this sort of arrangement never works? The F.A.A.’s flight-standards office in Singapore—the only field office it maintained in the entire developing world—once had half a dozen inspectors responsible for visiting more than 100 repair stations in Asia: not enough, to put it mildly, but they could accomplish something. By 2013 the number of inspectors was down to one. Now there is no one at all.

The Disturbing Truth About How Airplanes Are Maintained Today
[James B Steele/Vanity Fair]

(via Naked Capitalism)