Flying Blind

Yesterday, a sobering government report was released that should make all airline passengers cross their fingers as they lift off and land during the holiday rush. The U.S. Department of Transportation inspected noncertified repair centers operated by six different airlines, including on-site visits to ten centers. Inspector General Kenneth Mead concluded that all six carriers faced "significant shortcomings" in the training and oversight of workers at those centers.

The use of noncertified repair centers has grown exponentially since airlines began frantically laying off union employees in an effort to cut costs. But companies are only allowed to use those centers if the work is approved by a mechanic who is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. According to a story by John Hughes of Bloomberg News (here's the link to it in Tuesday's Strib) the FAA, the agency that is supposed to provide oversight, told Mead that work at the noncertified centers was restricted to minor things such as checking oil for contaminants.

But at more than half of the centers visited by Mead and his staff, uncertified workers were doing such jobs as inspecting wings and replacing hydraulic valves. Mead found that centers in St. Thomas, Bermuda, and El Salvador had never been visited by the FAA yet were doing such "critical repairs" as replacing engine components.

As for the carriers themselves, one performed no oversight at all, while the other five did evaluations without reviewing the work performed, relying on telephone contact rather than on-site reviews, Mead said. The carriers visited by Mead and his staff were American Airlines, Continental Airlines, AirTran Holdings, Frontier Airlines, American Eagle, and ExpressJet Holdings.

Meanwhile, the CEO of United Airlines said Monday that inadequate staffing and unpreparedness contributed to huge lines that stretched outside in freezing weather and created four-hours waits for service at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Saturday. The City of Chicago wound up sending four buses to help provide shelter to United's customers that day.

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