Monday, January 31, 2011

Faulty airline maintenance practices and the absence of planning

Here's one mechanic's view from the trenches:
I haven't been online much lately after taking a three month contract with United Airlines. It is likely to be extended, so that doesn't leave much time left for my passion of heterodox economics. It does give me a very close look at the present state of organized labor. What I have seen is a lot of bitterness among union members. People working there remember vividly what they have given up over the years in the name of saving their company- notably pensions, hourly wages, overtime and petty things like paid lunches. I saw industry practices of hiring two part time workers instead of one full time worker to avoid paying health insurance. Hourly wages at the company are currently at their 1993 nominal level, and instead of taking 5 years to reach the top of the scale, it takes ten years. Over 600 people applied for 40 open positions here in Chicago. So much for the myth unemployment is high because people don't want to work. New hires will work part time for $10.40/hour pre-tax dollars, not enough to support a guppy.
The airline is merging with Continental. So far very little has changed in terms of operating procedures, but that will change. The first to change is union representation. As departments merge each has to decide which union to adopt if any. Flight attendants are debating if the AFA (UA) or IAM (CO) will represent them. Rampers are choosing between IAM (UA) or Teamsters. Both pilot groups are represented by ALPA. Not sure about the mechanics. Workers are choosing somewhat based on personal preferences, i.e. the ability to work more extra hours vs get paid more for the times the airline can only use you for a few hours that day. Others are voting with their gut "I want a union that knows my struggle." There is a great deal of uncertainty which union will in the end represent them the strongest. Conversations between workers get heated. It reminds me of US political elections, where you're forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Other than better job protection, the union offers little in terms of a living wage for 10 years. We all agree, in the absence of improved minimum wage laws we need an airline union monopoly between all air carriers. That way the airlines will have to compete over other things than who can cut their labor costs the most.

One way they are doing it now is by outsourcing mechanical work to less qualified, non-unionized firms in China and the US. The FAA is issuing citations and whistle blowers went on camera to warn of the potentially disastrous practices (see the video at the bottom). Sometimes, in the absence of rules and enforcers, markets race to the bottom in terms of quality. You see it with accounting firms who never blow the whistle on criminal firms that pay them. Ratings agencies who give out easy AAA ratings to the banks which pay them. The political authority is rarely proactive in these matters. In the case of airlines the wakeup call will cost lives.
Here's the entire facebook entry.

Just by coincidence. the guy that helped me peddle my books that the recent Cabin Fever Expo model engineering show is also an aircraft mechanic, but he does not work for an airline. Last year, he was working for a private hedge fund on the east coast, maintaining their old Gulfstream. He used to fly as a co-pilot for a freight airline 15 years ago. He told me similar tales, and issued similar warnings. he left his job making $80 an hour maintaining the hedge fund's single jet, because they were leaning heavily on him to cut corners. They wanted him to be able to perform all maintenance in the average time it took to maintain the entire fleet of Gulfstreams now flying (as figured by what ever industry association or magazine maintained the relevant statistics). The problem was that the hedge fund's Gulfstream is nearly twenty years old, nearly double the fleet average age. So it requires a lot more maintenance. They wanted to pay my friend a flat $50,000 a year, and he would have to do all the same maintenance, whether it took 20 hours a week or 60 hours a week.
It's not like these hedge fund managers don't have the money. They regularly fly to Aspen for skiing, and spend $16,000 a night to keep their Gulfstream de-iced. That's just de-icing, mind you; we haven't even begun to discuss the cost of 10,000 pounds of jet-B.
Anyway, he said that soon after he left, he noted that the FAA records for the Gulfstream he had been working on seemed to have included a falsified report of repair work done to a fuselage component. It was a problem he knew about, and one for which the hedge fund had been balking at the amount required to properly repair.
Oh, by the way, let me pass this along: Did you know that the cost of a windshield for an old Gulfstream is $58,000? The co-pilot's side window on a Boeing 767 is $300,000. They're hand laminated, among other reasons.
So, the good news is that the greed and arrogance of the financial elites makes them insensitive to issues of their own personal safety. The bad news is that the greed and arrogance of the financial elites makes them insensitive to issues of every one else's personal safety as well.

1 comment:

  1. Point taken, but I didn't understand the point your making about the cost of a windscreen???