PBS Frontline journalist Miles O'Brien continued his look at the price of airline industry cost cutting by examining outsourced maintenance operations for commercial aircraft. The piece, which only runs 18 minutes, begins at a show I attended last year, MRO Americas in Phoenix, Arizona and goes on to investigate ST Aerospace's Mobile, Alabama facility where workers allege they are pressured to sign off on non-completed maintenance jobs.
The discussion is the return of a perennial question in this industry about how to cut costs while maintaining an identical or improving level of safety, a question that extends far beyond maintenance operations.
It is said that an accident occurs when holes in all of aviation's different protective layers line up allowing the opportunity for accident to find its way through. These layers include, but are not limited to, checklists (pilot and crew judgment), inspections (the enforcement and presence of regulation), system redundancy and structural ability to withstand damage (aircraft design). O'Brien leaves the question open as he concludes the piece, though he sees the maintenance companies in question as eroding one of those protective layers.
An engineer whose work has focused on further improving aviation safety says (emphasis theirs):
What this is is an economics issue. When these bad repairs are caught, the part must be repaired/replaced on site (so the flight is delayed) or at a repair facility (so the passengers need to be put on another airplane). This ends up costing more than the original botched repair, plus the cost of not efficiently making profit from that planeload of passengers.
But, if the money consistently saved by sending most jets to cheaper MROs is greater than the money occasionally spent in the consequences of the improperly-done repairs, then hey, it's worth it. Especially if the airlines trust that [the protective layers] will be enough to keep the repairs from causing an accident, and that this system of double-checks is all that the FAA can reasonably require.
The topic deserves a broader look than the brief examination here, which would hopefully include more than non-US companies operating maintenance facilities domestically, but specifically how maintenance is done in house at airlines around the world, if only to establish a contrast - if one exists - between the two types of facilities.