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Airline Labor To Regulators: Why Do Foreign Repair Stations Have Lower Standards?

AS REPORTED BY TED REED FOR FORBES

Four top airline industry labor leaders have written to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, asking that safety standards at foreign aircraft maintenance facilities be enhanced to the same level that domestic maintenance stations meet.

“Aircraft maintenance overseas needs to have the same standards as we have in the U.S.,” said Sito Pantoja, general vice president of the International Association of Machinists and one of the four signatories.

“These are not new issues for us,” Pantoja said in an interview. “They are issues we have been addressing in FAA reauthorization bills for 20 years.”

The letter said foreign repair stations trail U.S. stations in employee drug and alcohol testing, in employee security standards and “risk-based safety oversight of [stations] that have a demonstrated track record of performing poor work.”

Congress addressed the concerns in 2012 and 2016 Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization acts, but the safety measures have not been implemented, the letter to Chao said. “The reforms mandated by Congress and their initial deadlines predate your time as Secretary of Transportation, but the responsibility to fulfill these obligations now falls to you,” it said. The transportation department oversees the FAA.

Spokespersons for the agencies were not available Tuesday or Wednesday to comment on the substance of the letter.

Pantoja said foreign repair stations employ unlicensed mechanics —at times, with dozens of unlicensed mechanics overseen by a handful of licensed mechanics —and are not subject to unannounced inspections in the way that U.S. stations are. In fact, major maintenance facilities in the U.S., in cities including Charlotte and Tulsa, have FAA inspectors on site.

IAM and the Transport Workers Union jointly represent 31,000 workers including 14,700 mechanics at American Airlines. The parties are currently negotiating a joint contract following the 2013 merger of American, which had TWU contracts, and US Airways, which had IAM contract. Pantoja, who oversees talks for the IAM, spent nearly three decades as a TWA aircraft mechanic,

American has heavy maintenance bases in Charlotte, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Tulsa and also performs overnight maintenance at a variety of airports.

American also performs line maintenance in Sao Paulo and uses a third party maintenance base in San Salvador. Pantoja said the timing of the DOT letter reflects American’s desire to increase foreign outsourcing. American has said that it performs more in-house maintenance than any other U.S. airline.

On Monday, a U.S. District Court in Fort Worth heard testimony regarding whether American mechanics have staged a work slowdown due to the slow pace of labor talks. A decision is pending. If the judge determines that a slowdown occurred, he could impose a fine on the union. Pantoja said that no slowdown has occurred and that delays at American reflect an increased workload due to heavy summer flight schedules.

Signatories to the letter, besides Pantoja, were TWU President John Samuelsen; Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, and Mike Perrone, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, which represents federal employees including FAA workers.

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