Sunday, May 22, 2011

Aeroman aircraft maintenance in El Salvador

I have written previously about the growth of aircraft maintenance business at Aeroman in El Salvador. US airlines such as JetBlue, US Airways, Southwest, and others outsource with Aeroman to provide heavy maintenance on jetliners in their fleets.  The Aeroman facility at El Salvador's international airport provides hundreds of good-paying (by El Salvador standards) jobs.

A week ago, KIRO-TV in Seattle, did an "investigative" report on Aeroman, titling it Third-World Mechanics Paid $2 Per Hour For Boeing, Airbus Jet Repairs.   (A year and a half ago there was a similar story on National Public Radio).

From the KIRO story:

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.
The reporting in the story is actually pretty shoddy. There are a few anecdotes from two workers in the plant who talk about being pressured to work too fast. The report focuses on the lower pay of mechanics at Aeroman compared with those in the US, and suggests that maintenance at Aeroman should not be trusted because El Salvador is a "third world country."  (The reporters don't mention that Aeroman is owned by Aveos Group, a Canadian company).

US unions have long campaigned against outsourcing of aircraft maintenance jobs to other countries. The Teamsters union has a major campaign going on against aircraft maintenance outsourcing in an attempt to keep US-based airlines from having maintenance done in El Salvador and elsewhere. The Transport Workers Union immediately pointed to the KIRO-TV report as a reason why maintenance work should not be outsourced.

The unions have been bolstered by a report by the Office of Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation which criticizes the FAA's oversight of maintenance stations outside the US. While the OIG report does a thorough job of critiquing the FAA for lax oversight, the report does not actually establish that outsourcing decreases safety in general, or that outsourcing to El Salvador in particular has any safety risks for US airlines. But clearly the fact that repair stations are inspected by the FAA is not, in itself, a guarantee that the stations actually follow high quality practices.  The Air Transport Association, the trade association of the airline industry does offer statistics which it claims contradict the idea that outsourcing maintenance has a negative impact on safety.

The unexamined assumption of the KIRO-TV story, however, is its assumption that aircraft maintenance performed in the US by higher paid workers is of higher quality. (Perhaps this is an assumption which relates to KIRO-TV being located in Seattle, where Boeing has significant operations and there are thousands of aircraft mechanics in the area). A 2010 USA Today study, however, details how maintenance mistakes have impacted thousands of US flights. The report cites numerous instances of problems at US-based maintenance operations, including both facilities owned by the airlines and facilities which are contracted.

Aeroman describes the quality achieved by its operations on the Aeroman website:
Our business is not limited to maintenance; our main business goal is to offer customers the confidence and assurance that each time one of their aircrafts leaves our facilities it has been worked on with the most rigorous safety guidelines. Aeroman is certified by the FAA and many other Regulatory entities around the world. For nearly 30 years safety has been Aeroman’s number one priority; adhering to rules, regulations and policies established by these entities, always abiding to guidelines in the work performed.

To guarantee these safety standards, all employees undergo hours of constant rigorous training processes, which allow them to develop the technical abilities necessary to assure excellence in the services offered. In recognition to the commitment and effort to comply with the highest safety standards, we have received the FAA’s Corporate Diamond Certificate of Excellence, one of the most important acknowledgments in the industry.
The Aeroman site provides copies of many international certifications on the website, including ISO 9001 and European Union air safety authority.

Aeroman is a success story for El Salvador.   There are plenty of sweat shops, maquilas, and other places in El Salvador where workers are exploited, underpaid, and in unsafe working conditions.   Those operations compete wrongly and unfairly.  Aeroman is not one of them.  The sensationalistic journalism exemplified by the KIRO-TV report reflects a simple prejudice against business and workers south of the US border.

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