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Tulsa World Op-Ed By President James C. Little-Aircraft Maintenance: Level the Playing Field

Published 09 Jan, 2013

The Tulsa-based American Airlines mechanics and related work groups can outperform anyone else in the country when it comes to speed and quality. Even after all the heartache and sacrifice caused by the American Airlines' bankruptcy, more maintenance work is done in-house in Tulsa than is performed at any other U.S. carrier.

Thirty-one heavy maintenance lines are operating today at American's repair bases, compared with six at US Airways, three at Southwest, three at United, three at United's Continental subsidiary and none at Alaska or Delta. The pulse line operating in Tulsa turns around aircraft faster than at any other maintenance facility on the globe.

In 2013, AMR, American Airlines' parent company, will emerge from bankruptcy but Tulsa's Maintenance and Engineering Center, the city's largest employer, will still be at risk. The field isn't level when it comes to repairing aircraft.

Over the past decade, airlines have used loopholes in federal laws to send work overseas to thinly regulated, low-wage facilities, which are generally poorly secured, with little oversight from the FAA and no transparency. Initially work was sent abroad to save money. Now it appears that the primary reason is to escape federal oversight. The FAA seldom visits offshore repair stations and isn't even allowed to conduct compliance inspections without giving weeks of advance notice.

Consider this: A child boarding a plane at Tulsa International goes through a TSA security screening. If the plane doesn't say AA on the tail, it's likely that a foreign worker carried a tool kit from home and then worked on the plane's engine and fuel line, didn't have any background check, didn't take a drug or alcohol test and didn't go through any screening.

Southwest now sends many planes to El Salvador for heavy maintenance, as does US Airways and Jet Blue. Delta sends planes to Mexico and China. United has planes repaired in China at a facility, AMECO, where the ratio of workers to licensed mechanics is 500 to 1.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill revealed that in 2003 an al-Qaida cell was operating in a Singapore facility that worked on U.S. commercial aircraft. In Singapore, prison laborers have been used to clean aircraft. What kind of criminal background check do you think they had?

The Transport Workers Union has fought to keep work in-house and in Tulsa at American Airlines. Through negotiations and by proposing measures of efficiency, we reduced involuntary layoffs by 90 percent from the number initially demanded by management and we have contract language that guarantees at least 65 percent of the money AMR spends on maintenance will remain in-house. We also have negotiated provisions with US Airways to keep maintenance in-house if that airline merges with AMR. The measures we gained at the bargaining table are unprecedented in the history of airline bankruptcies - far better than agreements reached by the Teamsters, AMFA or the Machinists unions at other airlines.

We at TWU know that we need to go beyond bargaining to keep good jobs. We want to work with communities such as Tulsa to close the loopholes that create an unfair advantage for foreign facilities, loopholes that put the flying public and Tulsa's economy at risk.

PBS Frontline correspondent Miles O'Brien, who has researched this issue, has said that when he gets on a plane, "I have no idea where it's been fixed, how it's been fixed, if the facility is up to snuff or not." This is unacceptable.

Oklahoma's representatives in Washington and in the state Legislature, regardless of party affiliation or tenure in office, must call for tougher standards and more oversight on overseas maintenance.

Overseas maintenance is commercial aviation's dirty little secret. If we can level the field by outing this safety lapse, closing loopholes and raising offshore maintenance and security requirements, TWU members win, Tulsa wins and the flying public wins. This shouldn't be an uphill battle.

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