Ask the pilot

Don't blame outsourcing for JetBlue's mishap.

Published October 7, 2005 11:00AM (EDT)

It was only a matter of time, maybe, before somebody linked the fate of JetBlue flight 292 with the growing scourge of airline-maintenance outsourcing. In ever increasing numbers, carriers large and small are consigning work to low-cost off-property contractors. Whether it's a simple part swap or a major D-check overhaul, procedures that once took place in an airline's hangar, under watch of senior mechanics, are now consigned to so-called fixed-based operators (FBOs) both in the United States and abroad, some of them in developing countries where the bulk of personnel needn't meet FAA certification standards. How safe is this practice, and what did it have to do with JetBlue's widely publicized emergency landing two weeks ago?

My own answers are "it depends," and "probably nothing." Others, however, are considerably less restrained: "JetBlue's near-catastrophe was no fluke," exclaims a piece by editor at large Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect, also published as an opinion piece in the Washington Post. "It's what you get when you send maintenance jobs overseas." Meyerson points out that JetBlue's A320s are flown to Canada and, can we stomach it, El Salvador, for repairs and upkeep.

That's a bold indictment. But is it accurate?

The rampant outsourcing of skilled jobs is obviously harmful for the American worker and gravely symptomatic of the ongoing emasculation of the U.S. labor force. The subcontracting of safety-related functions, such as airliner maintenance, is perhaps an especially bad idea. At the same time, there are no known links between the potential hazards of outsourcing and the JetBlue mishap that occurred on Sept. 21.

First things first: Whether or not Meyerson was personally responsible for writing his own lead-in tease, assertions that flight 292 was ever in serious danger are simply wrong. As covered here last Friday, the jammed nose gear assembly was, from a pilot's point of view, a non-event highly unlikely to cause even minor injuries. That it became a live-action network spectacle had nothing to do with the nature of the problem and everything to do with the media's choice to make it one, owing in part to a total misunderstanding of the malfunction. As for that "supremely competent" pilot Meyerson compliments, he and his colleague did little more than execute a normal touchdown after burning off some fuel (more on that later).

As for what caused the plane's tires to skew in the first place, consensus blames a hydraulic failure in a portion of the nosewheel-steering system. Nearly identical failures have happened before on the popular high-tech Airbus A320 -- up to seven prior times. There's the clear temptation to interpret this pathology as a smoking gun.

"Outsourcing was absolutely not a factor in this accident," says a JetBlue pilot, who asks that his identity be withheld. He and other A320 crewmembers I spoke with attribute the recurring breakdowns to a design deficiency -- expensive, inconvenient and all too photogenic, but by no means deadly -- and not the result of negligent maintenance performed in Canada, El Salvador or anywhere else.

That "anywhere else," it's important to note, isn't always on foreign soil. In fact it's usually not. Meyerson is quick to invoke El Salvador, but most airline outsourcing involves shopping to the lowest bidder here at home, not in a scary-sounding third-world country. A non-union technician at an outstation facility in Phoenix, Wichita, or Miami can perform the same work as an in-house mechanic at a carrier's hometown hub in Chicago, for a fraction of the bill.

And yes, that same technician in South or Central America is liable to do it for cheaper still. But there too, it's not about skirting regulation, it's about getting the best price. (Schedule, inventory and other factors play a role too. Check the industry trade magazines and you'll see that carriers all around the world, including some of the biggest names from Europe and Asia, routinely outsource major repairs, overhauls and conversions, as they have for decades.) The quality of outsourced work, whether done domestically or offshore, is by no means necessarily substandard.

JetBlue does send some of its Airbuses to El Salvador, where only a third of the mechanics are certified per U.S. FAA standards. That, on the face of it, seems to be asking for trouble, real or perceived. But it's also true that TACA, the Central American carrier with whom JetBlue contracts, is a highly regarded airline (founded in 1931) with modern maintenance facilities. Those FAA standards can be merely a formality, as experienced, certified technicians coordinate and oversee all operations.

"Our heavy checks, where the airplane is down for weeks at a time," the same JetBlue pilot explains, "are done by specialists in Winnipeg and in San Salvador. We use well-respected companies Air Canada and TACA. These locations have outstanding technical capabilities. This is a complete nonissue at our airline."

Not long ago I was employed by a well-known U.S. freight airline whose jets were flown to Peru for intensive overhauls. When they came back, the aircraft were often more reliable than when our own mechanics had worked on them.

Admittedly that's anecdotal evidence, and I agree there are enough unknowns -- and a few knowns -- to warrant greater scrutiny. Not long ago, mechanics at Alaska Airlines discovered improperly greased jackscrew assemblies in the horizontal stabilizer assemblies of some MD-80 aircraft. Those are the same MD-80 jackscrews singled out by the FAA for special attention after the crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261 five years ago. Allegedly an Alaska subcontractor in Oklahoma was responsible for the misgreased parts. Nonetheless, for now, it's best we restrict the debate to issues of economics rather than sensationalize it as a life-or-death scandal.

Until there's documentation of faulty maintenance, dragging JetBlue 292 onto the stage was at best a stretch. Harold Meyerson and the American Prospect are effectively scaremongering, exploiting people's ignorance about airplanes to underscore a valid if unrelated point -- not unlike the way certain politicians are able to bilk public sympathy by playing the "terrorism" card at every turn. Surely the American Prospect is a savvy enough publication to see through the hyperbole of TV news. To my surprise, it actually took things a step further, using incendiary and manipulative language to give an already overblown story a second life.

You mentioned that some smaller jetliners, including the Airbus A320 flown by JetBlue, are not equipped with fuel-dump capability. Well, why not? Wouldn't this simple system have precluded flight 292's need to fly in circles for three hours, burning off excess weight?

Whether or not a transport requires a jettison system depends on whether it can, under test-flown conditions, meet regulatory climb minimums with a failed engine. The A320 has, at its maximum certified weight, demonstrated successful departure climb capability -- and, just as important, successful missed approach (go-around) climb capability -- with a powerplant inoperative. Therefore no jettison plumbing is required. If an overweight landing needs to be made during a dire emergency, so be it; the engine-out climb ability is more critical than the stresses of a heavy landing.

If you're having trouble sleeping, the finer points of this regulation are viewable here.

Larger aircraft -- a 747 for example -- are almost always equipped with a dump system chiefly because of the vastness of their fuel capacities. A 747 can cruise for upwards of 16 hours with maximum fuel, versus about seven for an A320. Aside from those engine-out climb strictures, a widebody jet's maximum takeoff weight is usually hundreds of thousands of pounds above its maximum landing weight. Burning down to suitable poundage would entail a tremendous amount of circling time.

And here's a point that I ought to have stressed last time: It wasn't only weight, strictly speaking, that the crew of JetBlue 292 was concerned with as they circled over California. The main intent of burning off fuel was to allow for a slower touchdown. A lighter plane means lower landing speed -- a number that pilots call V-ref. That in turn means less rollout distance, which for JetBlue meant less time for the errant nose gear to gouge into the pavement.

But if the plane was able to stay in the air for several hours, why waste that time circling? Why didn't they head for their destination and make the same emergency landing at JFK?

Based on what I've been told, the nature of the malfunction meant the landing gear could not remain retracted. Having to fly with the gear extended subjects you to serious speed and altitude penalties, greatly increasing fuel burn and time en route. They'd never have made it to New York. A small regional plane might continue with the gear extended on rare occasions, but for a jetliner it's operationally impractical even on a short hop.

Now, if flight 292's gear had been retractable, then the question is more interesting. At that point it becomes a joint decision between crew and airline operations personnel, weighing the pros and cons of numerous factors: the nature of the malfunction (does it suggest additional problems might develop en route?), weather, runway length, passenger facilities, maintenance facilities, and so forth.

Your Sept. 30 JetBlue analysis missed the boat. It's unfortunately common for people with specialized expertise to assume more knowledge on the part of readers than they actually have. In this case, we wait in vain for a detailed account of just how the plane was set down. How did the pilots determine the landing angle, speed, etc? How, specifically, was this delicate operation different from a normal landing?

As I wrote on the 30th, if the crew deserves commendation, it's for the intangibles of coordination, planning and adherence to procedural protocol. Otherwise, the mechanics of the landing itself were hardly special. There were no changes to angle and no changes to technique, really, other than finessing the nose onto the pavement as gently as possible. To that end, the pilots merely avoided the use of reverse thrust and brakes, which together act to push the forward fuselage down more sharply (the same forward-acting force you feel against your body when applying the brakes in your car).

Lack of braking and reverse thrust would, expectedly, increase the amount of runway used -- getting back to the value of having burned-off fuel in order to touch more slowly. Using data from the aircraft manuals, both the crew and airline staff would have been able to accurately gauge how much room would be needed. The 11,000 feet of LAX's runway 25L were more than enough.

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Now for something different, I'd like to close by reprinting a couple of letters. With respect to the TV circus surrounding the JetBlue emergency, last week's column included the following statement from an Airbus pilot: "You'd better believe the producers at CNN, Fox and MSNBC were, on some level, wishing for a catastrophe." For the record, much as I've hurled my own share of darts at the media over its aviation coverage, I'm not quite cynical enough to claim the networks were, in whole, hoping for a crash. But certainly an element of that spirit exists out there, and so I considered the quote worthy of inclusion. Was this the right thing to do? In response came the following two e-mails (edited slightly for clarity):

"I just finished reading your analysis of the JetBlue incident. Because I'm a television journalist, I want to take exception to what I believe is an unintended slur against my profession. First, most of what you said about our sensationalist approach to the coverage is true. Our sense of industry self-respect has degraded exponentially. But, I think you are wrong to suggest that we were ghoulishly waiting for the worst to happen. In my newsroom, we were riveted to the screen, hoping -- some of us praying -- that things turned out all right. There was a whoop of joy and applause when the plane landed safely. There was no sense of disappointment that we were denied our daily quotient of mayhem. Granted, we lacked your technical expertise and perhaps created a false sense of drama, but I don't think it came from a desire to view the carnage. Simply put, it's wrong to paint my industry's interest in the outcome of JetBlue 292 as ghoulish, just as it would be wrong for us to stereotype pilots as drunks based on the few who've been caught attempting to fly under the influence."

-- C.E. Gray, Jr.

"Your comment about shameful TV-meisters and their love of carnage is absolutely true. I've seen it with my own eyes. I was a TV director for a local newscast at the NBC affiliate in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1988 when Pan Am 103 went down in Lockerbie. As I was preparing for the newscast in the newsroom, the story came over the wires about the crash and its appalling numbers of dead. I had never seen our producer so excited, shrieking in delight about what a "great story" this was, laughing and excitedly telling us how this was the best story she'd seen in a long time. It was sick. That was the night that I decided to get out of TV news for good. As you know, things have gotten even worse since those days -- local and network newscasters have gone nuts, spending days at a time on death watches, fabricating heroes and villains, and generally making a shambles of the grand traditions of Edward R. Murrow.

-- Charlie White, Executive Producer, Digital Media Online Inc.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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