Airline mechanics feel pressured to overlook potential safety problems: “Accident waiting to happen”
Airline mechanics say they feel pressured by management to look the other way when they see potential safety problems on airplanes, an eight-month-long CBS News investigation reveals. In some of the cases, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed with those mechanics.
The U.S. aviation system is experiencing an unparalleled period of safety, with only one death involving a passenger airline in the last decade. But in our interviews with more than two dozen airline mechanics, they speak of the pressure to turn aircraft around faster that sometimes can be too much, reports CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave. They blame it on an economic reality of the airline business: a plane only makes an airline money when it’s flying passengers.
Cell phone video captured a tense exchange between an American Airlines mechanic and a manager in 2017.
“We’re an accident waiting to happen,” the mechanic could be heard saying.
The FAA found reason to believe a Miami-based mechanic was retaliated against after reporting problems that pulled several planes out of service.
“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 mechanic can be heard saying.
Gary Santos, a long time American Airlines mechanic based in New York, described it as “a short-cut environment.” He said he’s risking his job by speaking on camera.
“They try to pressure the individual not to write it up,” Santos said.
“They’d rather you not report a maintenance issue?” Van Cleave asked.
“Right,” Santos responded.
While a sometimes tense relationship between management and mechanics is not uncommon, every one of the 26 airline mechanics we spoke to – two thirds from American and the rest from Southwest Airlines – described being pressured by managers to focus only on the work assigned.
“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 said.
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.
“Have you had managers use the words ‘can’t we skip some steps’?” Van Cleave asked.
“Absolutely,” the mechanic responded. “The pressure is there and, you know, the threats of termination and walking you off the airfield, as they would say, are very real and common place.”
The mechanics come from bases all over the country. One mechanic told CBS News the pressure was for “significant safety issues.”
“Things that needed to be repaired. Worn tires, worn brakes, damage to the fuselage,” he said.
CBS News obtained a transcript of a December 2017 Southwest employee conference call where senior VP of technical operations Landon Nitschke acknowledged: “We definitely need to repair some things with the FAA… there are some things there with… [mechanics] getting questioned. Supervisors certainly getting questioned…so again, compliance, compliance, compliance.”
Capt. Dave Hunt is Southwest’s senior director of safety management. “I think that is a good indicator of what our leadership tells our employees,” Hunt said. “It is our highest priority.”
“But you don’t feel like your mechanics are being unduly pressured or threatened, chastised, criticized for finding issues that are out of scope?” Van Cleave asked.
“I think any issue that’s brought forward to us is taken seriously, acted upon, investigated, and we act on those. So any way we hear about an instance, we carefully review those,” Hunt said.
“But you’re stopping short of saying that’s not happening,” Van Cleave pointed out.
“Whenever we become aware of a safety-related event, we take them all seriously and we act on all of them the same way,” Hunt said.
Former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia said it’s unusual for so many mechanics to speak out publicly.
“That’s standing out on the top of the hill screaming at the top of your lungs,” Goglia said, acknowledging “there’s no question that there’s a problem.”
He believes the pressure to speed up repairs and get planes back in service faster is a problem for mechanics industry wide.
“You have two dozen. I’ve probably had over a hundred over the past three or four years that have called me with those kinds of complaints, and I’m talking about calls from every single airline,” Goglia said.
David Seymour is a senior vice president at American.
“Safety is part of the culture and they know if they don’t do it safely, they’re not to do it at all,” Seymour said.
“Does it concern you that we’re hearing a different account from a number of mechanics?” Van Cleave asked.
“It’s not a concern for me because I think we have programs in place to make sure that they can report them,” Seymour said.
“You say it’s not a concern, we talked to a former NTSB board member who said based on the number of people we have talked to… and that several went on camera isn’t just a red flag, he called it a field of red flags,” Van Cleave said.
“What I will tell you is allegations have been made, but almost all of them have been dismissed. There have been some issues we’ve had to address, but again, there’s never been an allegation made that American Airlines flew an aircraft that was unsafe,” Seymour said.
Both Southwest and American are locked in tense union negotiations with mechanics over pay and benefits.
“Should people be concerned about the planes they’re getting on today?”
“I get on them every day so I am not concerned… it’s like climbing a ladder where the top rung may be an accident or a serious incident,” Goglia said. “Every time you don’t do something the way it’s supposed to be done, you’re climbing another rung in the ladder… and it takes several rungs when you start getting up there the risk starts to get severe.”
“Do you worry that pressure is going to result in an accident? Something is not going to get fixed?” Van Cleave asked Santos.
“Those things keep me up at night,” Santos responded.
These mechanics tell us they worry how the pressure they describe will impact the overall safety culture over time. In the Miami situation, American said it does not believe it was a case of retaliation. That mechanic is on the job today.
One FAA official told us while they do see cases of undue pressure, they believe the vast majority of employees are trying to do the right thing.