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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Offshoring of Airline Maintenance: Implications for Domestic Jobs and Aviation Safety

Rachel Tang
Analyst in Transportation and Industry

Bart Elias
Specialist in Aviation Policy

Airlines outsource maintenance to countries like China and El Salvador to achieve cost savings from the comparatively lower wages and from lower costs to build and maintain repair facilities. In some cases, particularly in China, government investment and other incentives, along with backing from national airlines, have spurred rapid expansion of the foreign aircraft maintenance industry over the past decade. While airline maintenance work outsourced to foreign repair facilities has increased considerably over the past decade, there are no conclusive data indicating that this has directly resulted in the loss of U.S. jobs. Despite increased maintenance outsourcing, the United States continues to maintain a positive trade balance for airline maintenance work, a trend that likely reflects the United States’ advanced capabilities on high-value engine and aircraft component work.

While investigative reports and labor union sponsored studies of airline outsourcing practices have been critical of foreign repair facilities, more detailed statistical analysis does not support conclusions that maintenance outsourcing or offshoring has had measurable negative impact on safety, quality control, or reliability. Although some experts believe that safety is being compromised and the regulation and oversight of foreign repair stations needs to be improved, analyses of recent trends do not provide obvious evidence that maintenance outsourcing has adversely affected airline safety.

Specific concerns have been raised regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) limited resources to oversee foreign repair stations, and FAA’s extensive reliance on foreign regulators and the airlines to monitor these facilities. Additional concerns have been raised over worker training and qualifications at foreign facilities, the relatively low numbers of workers at these facilities with FAA certification, and the lack of English language skills necessary to read and comprehend maintenance manuals and instructions.

Congress also has been concerned about the adequacy of drug and alcohol testing programs at foreign repair stations that work on U.S. aircraft. In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-95), it mandated drug and alcohol testing at those locations in a manner consistent with existing bilateral aviation safety agreements and the laws of countries where the repair stations are located. Additionally, the act directed FAA to ensure that foreign repair stations are subject to appropriate inspections consistent with existing U.S. requirements and bilateral air safety agreements; inspect foreign repair stations annually; and carry out independent inspections when warranted by safety concerns.

The United States has continued to maintain a positive trade balance with respect to airline maintenance work. However, future foreign investment in advanced training and technical capabilities related to high-value engine and component repair and overhaul could lead to more direct foreign competition in these areas. While available data do not indicate that offshoring of maintenance work has negatively impacted safety, specific areas for potential improvement include the allocation of FAA inspectors and resources focused on the oversight of foreign repair stations; FAA certification and qualification standards for individuals assigned to supervisory roles at foreign repair stations; and standards or guidelines for English language proficiency and comprehension of written technical materials among foreign repair station mechanics.

Date of Report: December 21, 2012
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R42876
Price: $29.95

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