Updated: 11:18 a.m. Wednesday, July 27, 2011 | Posted: 3:04 p.m. Monday, May 16, 2011

Third-world mechanics paid $2 per hour for Boeing, Airbus jet repairs

Maintenance increasingly outsourced to El Salvador, Hong Kong


From engine overhauls, to drilling out rivets to fixing faulty flaps, Boeing and Airbus-made passenger jet repairs are increasingly being done in third-world countries. The outsourcing is definitely an economic threat to U.S. union workers, but KIRO Team 7 Investigators also found it's raising new concerns over safety.


Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne, recently visited El Salvador to find out more about a multimillion dollar jet repair shop called Aeroman.


El Salvador wants to rid itself of its guerilla war reputation and glean a new image: fruit-filled jungles, coffee plantations, Pacific beaches and the multimillion dollar business of repairing Boeing-made jetliners.


Our investigation found that Southwest Airlines, US Airways, Jet Blue and Frontier all pay Aeroman in El Salvador to fix up some of their aircraft. Delta takes part of its Boeing fleet for repairs to Guatemala, Guadalajara, and Mexico City, while taking others to repair centers in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taipei.


Like Delta, Continental Airlines uses a maintenance facility in Hong Kong.


United Airlines flies about 40% of its fleet to Beijing, China for major repairs and mandated inspections.


All these places have one thing in common - cheap, cheap labor.


At the edge of an airport property just outside the city of San Salvador sits four buildings tucked away from public view. The massive bays are owned by a passenger jet repair company called Aeroman. Every time KIRO Team 7 Investigators tried to get a little closer look, someone with a gun or a badge or both told us “no permiso.”


We asked for a tour in advance of our arrival, but when we showed up at the main repair facility with a camera, Aeroman officials told us to leave. Team 7 Investigators didn't go to El Salvador to be shooed away. Using surveillance, we determined that the only place we could see inside the repair operation was from the main runway of El Salvador's International Airport at Comalapa. No problem.


We paid a private, small aircraft pilot to take off at a different airport and fly us to Aeroman's front door. By slowly taxiing past the facility several times, we could watch three Southwest Airlines, Boeing-made 737's being torn apart for repairs. We also videotaped a US Airways jet with its engine opened up on this day, then undergoing more serious repairs inside the hangar a few days later. A Jet Blue Airbus-made passenger plane was in the hangar as well.


Salvadorian officials didn’t appreciate our presence or questions about Aeroman. It appeared to us that the company, the government, the military, and the Port Authority worked in tandem to prevent unfiltered information from reaching the public.


Even though Aeroman managers made an announcement while we were outside, reminding the 1,300 employees working at the aircraft repair plant that talking with reporters would get them fired, several experienced mechanics did so anyway.


We drove a significant distance from Aeroman with the employees to a place they felt safe to talk openly. KIRO 7 Eyewitness News agreed to protect their identities by altering their voices and using a special computer animation program to shield their faces for out television broadcast. An interpreter, paid by KIRO 7, translated from Spanish to English.


Both shared safety concerns that they believe could affect the airworthiness of some passenger jets, starting with what they called “rush-rush” mandates which don't always allow time for proper repairs. They say Aeroman goes strictly by the book to ensure turnaround time. If the repair manual says grinding down, then filling in a scratch should take two hours, that’s the maximum time limit, whether it’s done properly or not.

They tell KIRO Team 7 Investigators, they personally witnessed dangerous fixes go out the door.


Interpreter for Aeroman Employee #1: “A unit can arrive with a dent, a computer for example. Somebody with no experience can just push it through, not knowing that it’s actually faulty equipment. Those are the errors he sees.”

Interpreter for Aeroman Employee #2: “He says yeah. It concerns him to the point. He said he knows that some of these new guys come in and sometimes for the fear of losing their jobs, (shortcuts) could go unreported.


There is documentation to back those concerns up. KIRO Team 7 Investigators uncovered some recent reports of sloppy repair work connected with Aeroman in El Salvador. In 2009, a US Airways jet had to make an emergency landing in Denver after Aeroman employees installed some door components and seals backwards. And we confirmed at least two more recent serious errors, both dealing with mixed up wiring.


Since we didn’t expect much of a warm welcome in El Salvador, we asked our colleagues at WFOR in Miami to fire off some questions to Aeroman CEO, Ernesto Ruiz, when he was visiting there for a conference. For starters, Ruiz apologized for the wiring and door seal mistakes, saying they were a rare occurrence.


Ruiz says, “Errors can happen- they were minor errors - thank God and nothing else has happened since that.”


However, Ruiz denies his fast-growing US-based airline clients are flocking to him because of cheap labor.


“I have not seen an airline going to a place where quality is not a guarantee. OK? And obviously, they want the aircraft delivered on time and I think we have been outstanding on that respect.”


These Aeroman employees say labor costs are the main reason they are seeing a huge uptick in business. About 70% of airframe maintenance costs are labor. Some airframe repairs, that would cost several million dollars in the United States, are done for a fraction of that in El Salvador.


Other workers at Aeroman say they feel like they could do a better job if the company more often allowed them to get certified. Based on their direct knowledge and our observations, it appears much of the hard labor is done by 18 and 19 year olds, with minimal education. We’re also told some bosses too often hire unqualified members of politically connected families to curry favor.


So what do jet mechanics make in El Salvador? They start at about $2 an hour.


Interpreter for Employee #1: “The helper gets anywhere from $315 and $320 a month - the helper.

Halsne: Do they touch the plane?

Interpreter for Employee #1: Yes. Basically he's working alongside the mechanic. The mechanic is not a certified person. Just somebody that basically has a little more experience than the helper.


Mechanics with a decade of experience earn about $5 an hour. Around San Salvador, that’s considered a high-paying job.


But is the flying public comfortable with knowing a below minimum wage jet mechanic is conducting major maintenance on their aircraft?


We asked Bob Ditchey. He’s an aviation maintenance expert and retired co-founder of America West Airlines.


“The airline is a dog-eat-dog, tough, rough. It's a business where it’s almost impossible to make a decent return on your money,” Ditchey told Halsne during an interview in Los Angeles.


He says jet maintenance isn’t as complicated as most people think, so the work doesn’t have to be done by aerospace engineers, just well-trained mechanics.


Halsne: You don't think it’s a risk to outsource airframe maintenance to some of these countries we consider third world?

Ditchey: Indeed, I do. I do. I think that wherever you send work, no matter where it is, even in the United States, you best watch them. You better watch them.”


We asked him about what the Aeroman workers were saying about shortcuts, inexperienced workers, and time pressures they’d seen lead to poor workmanship. He called most of it “baloney.”


“Ask any worker, anywhere, they will probably say the same thing. No matter who they work for. The worker doesn't like to be pushed, supervised, limited.”


But Ditchey says there are real problems that can lead to real disaster. For example, the two Aeroman workers we interviewed didn’t speak or read English - the language of Boeing repair manuals and instructions.


Halsne: What percentage of workers does he think can neither speak English or read the English manuals that are required to come with these planes?

Interpreter for Employee #2: He said 40 percent of the people actually understand and perform their jobs knowing what they're reading.


Ditchey says English proficiency is essential to avoid some serious mistakes. However, he also adds some perspective that should make the flying public feel a little better. Ditchey believes even if a third-world country repair shop makes errors, both Boeing and Airbus jetliners have so many redundancies built in that they will likely keep flying even if mistakes are made.


After months of waiting, the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday provided us with its latest inspection report of Aeroman in El Salvador. The April 2010 report lists more than 100 alleged violations. We are right now consulting with experts who can tell us which, if any, of the noted "discrepancies" are serious.


The following emails came from Delta and Jet Blue in response to our questions about outsourcing maintenance to other countries:

PDF: Response From Delta Airlines | PDF: Response From Jet Blue

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