Commercial flight mechanics are being pressured by their employers to keep planes flying and suppress the reporting of potential safety issues.
That’s according to an eight-month-long investigation by CBS News published on Monday, based on interviews with various flight mechanics and even the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
In 2017, for example, a cell phone video captured an exchange between a flight mechanic for American Airlines and their manager, in which the mechanic said the safety issues he found on the plane amounted to “an accident waiting to happen.”
“You single out one guy because he’s doing his job. What about all of us? What’s going to happen to us when we do our jobs?” The man is heard saying in the video obtained by CBS.
The FAA also found at least one example of a flight mechanic in Miami who was fired in retaliation for pulling planes from service due to safety issues that were reported. New York flight mechanic Gary Santos told CBS’ Kris Van Cleave that airlines “pressure the [mechanic]” to not write up safety issues to avoid planes being pulled from service. Some of the safety issues mechanics were pressured to ignore included “worn tires, worn brakes, damage to the fuselage,” and other issues.
Of the 26 mechanics interviewed in the investigation, all of them said they felt pressured to not report safety issues they saw on various aircraft and to only work on issues particularly assigned to them by their managers. Two-thirds of the mechanics worked for American Airlines, and the rest worked for Southwest.
“If you’re working, say, on a landing gear, lubing it, and you notice that a flap three feet away is leaking, and you write up the flap leak, you’re beyond your scope,” one mechanic told CBS.
The growth of the airline industry — particularly in the last decade — has been unmistakeable. According to data compiled by Statista, the number of global airline passengers has nearly doubled since 2009, with more than 4.3 billion passengers worldwide expected this year. In 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that there were roughly 965 million airline passengers in the United States alone.
Given the growing number of airline passengers, and the fact that airlines only make money when planes are flying, the motivation to pressure mechanics to get planes out of service back in service could be chalked up to companies’ pressure to deliver higher profits to shareholders. Flight mechanics told CBS that managers frequently looked over their shoulders as they worked and reportedly asked if they were able to “skip a few steps” in order to get aircraft back in service and ready for passengers.
They’re claims are backed up by findings in several FAA whistleblower complaints about inappropriate pressure and retaliation since 2015 at the two airlines – and at least 31 other anonymous industry-wide reports between 2015 to 2018.
“I’ve seen people walked off the job, held on suspension for a month or more because they’ve reported problems that they supposedly were outside their scope for finding,” the mechanic said.
Several American mechanics – all with decades on the job – spoke on the condition we not show their faces, saying they feared retaliation.
“You constantly have people over your shoulder questioning why it takes so long. ‘Can’t we skip a few steps?'” another mechanic said.
Captain Dave Hunt, who is Southwest’s senior director of safety management, argued that the airline takes steps to “carefully review” any safety issue reported by mechanics. However, Hunt noticeably stopped short of saying that the pressuring of mechanics to not report safety concerns wasn’t happening.
Jake Shepherd is a freelance writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He enjoys poring through financial disclosure statements, spirited debate, and good scotch. He remains eternally optimistic about the Browns. Email him at jake.d.shepherd.21 (at) hotmail (dot) com.