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  • Meet Drew Griffin
  • Unsafe Skies
  • A CBS 2 Special Assignment Investigation

    May 12, 2003 4:02 pm US/Pacific
    In this CBS 2 Special Assignment, investigative reporter Drew Griffin looks at a crippled airline industry struggling to survive, and a growing trend that one whistleblower says is putting safety at risk.

    The charges come from a former United mechanic, fired from his job, he says, after he voiced his concerns about what his airline was doing. That airline -- United -- is one of this nation's and the world's safest airlines, and calls the whistleblower a disgruntled ex-employee who is flat-out wrong. But if Tim Hafer is right, there is a danger in the air that no one has told you about.

    Special Assignment: "Unsafe Skies" originally aired Monday, May 12, 2003 at 11 p.m.

    He was a mechanic for United for eight years, responsible for the constant attention these multimillion-dollar machines require to stay safe.

    "And I got to see the dirty laundry so to speak," Tim Hafer says.

    And the dirty laundry that bothered Tim Hafer was a process called "outsourcing." United Airlines, like other airlines, has been firing its own mechanics and sending an increasing amount of its maintenance and repair work to subcontractors.

    Drew Griffin: "You say it turns into a lower quality of maintenance?"

    Hafer: "Yeah."

    The problem, says Hafer, is that federal regulations allow subcontractors to hire unlicensed mechanics.

    "They can get cheap labor and bring them in and as long as a certified person signs off on the work it's okay," Hafer says.

    But when an airline sends its maintenance outside the company, Hafer claims, the airline looses control. And in the case of United, he says his own documents show an airline that has lost control of its approval process, of its mechanics, of its safety.

    Hank Krakowski is United's vice president and chief safety officer. And as you will hear, he flatly rejects any argument that outsourcing jeopardizes safety.

    "No, we donít believe at all that our airplanes are out of our control," Krakowski says.

    But internal United records uncovered by Special Assignment seem to show a different story -- a story Hafer says began in November of 2000, when United sent its entire fleet of 727s to a contractor in North Carolina -- the aviation maintenance company named TIMCO.

    The contract called for electrical breakers inside each plane to be overhauled.

    On Unitedís approval, TIMCO sent the work to yet another subcontractor.

    The work was never done. Instead of overhauling the breakers, TIMCOís subcontractor did something else.

    Hafer: "They just cleaned them up and made them look shiny and put them back on the plane."

    Griffin: "Thatís borderline criminal."

    Hafer: "Oh it;s criminal. You have seven potential firebombs on those planes."

    Griffin: "How long did the planes fly?"

    Hafer: "They flew around for about three of four months."

    Krakowski: "We pulled them out of all the planes immediately, we quarantined the parts, there's an FAA investigation going on as we speak."

    Griffin: "In context of the oversight of these planes, and loosing control of these planes, what happened where the oversight did not work, because clearly it did not?"

    Krakowski: "Yea it surprised us too and I have to tell you itís an unacceptable issue."

    But less than a year later, United was surprised again by outsourcing work here at TIMCO.

    A United 737, with parts of its fuel system missing, was signed off by TIMCO and allowed to fly.

    The plane flew an estimated 17 flights before anyone spotted the trouble. The FAA found out about it, and fined United $33,000. And those two incidents were only the beginning.

    Combing through United's computer records of other outsourced maintenance and repair work, Hafer found something missing.

    The names of the mechanics that approved the work, the final inspectors, were not there, on job, after job.

    Hafer: "Autopilot checks ... flap repairs, flight control repairs."

    Who was giving the final computer sign-off for the outsource work? They turned out to be United office workers and secretaries.

    Griffin: "So in terms of United, the quality control of maintenance ends with the secretary signing?"

    Hafer: "In that situation, yeah."

    Griffin: "You're describing a very thin line between a safe flight and a disaster."

    Hafer: "Oh yeah. It's kinda like playing lottery in reverse. The other way around. Youíre buying a ticket and you never know if you have that unlucky ticket."

    Griffin: "This disgruntled employee is saying you guys have secretaries signing off on this work."

    Krakowski: "Absolutely false, absolutely false."

    All the work, Krakowski says, was inspected and approved by a qualified mechanic according to FAA regulations.

    But that's not what the FAA found when it looked into Hafer's charges. In a letter to United, the FAA says it found "disparities" in the airline record keeping that violated federal regulations. And final work reports were filed by unqualified people.

    Krakowski: "When the FAA brought this to our attention two years ago, we took action, we corrected it, that problem no longer exists. And in fact we got a letter from the FAA congratulating us on our responsiveness to that issue.

    Mary Schiavo is the former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation and a vocal critic of the trend in the airline business to cut costs by outsourcing.

    "Second only to security issues, outsourcing is the biggest problem facing the aviation industry today because it represents several problems coming to a head," Schiavo says. "I saw it in the Valujet tragedy. We are now seeing it in the U.S Airlines and Air Midwest crash from just this past January."

    Schiavo: "The more you outsource the more you loose control over your safety and quality."

    United doesn't believe it. And in fact, like other airlines, is looking to increase the amount of maintenance work it sends outside the company, even hoping to send work overseas.

    "Its cheaper, maintains good quality, so as a competitive issue we as a company are forced to look at every way to save money as well."

    Griffin: "What would you say to people who fly today?"

    Hafer: "Be very careful."

    Since Hafer left United there have been several more suspected cases of shoddy repairs done by Unitedís subcontractors.

    Just this past November, a United Aerbus landed with its nose gear wheels turned at a 90-degree angle. The gear had just been overhauled at a United outsourcing contractor. The NTSB has launched yet another investigation.

    (MMIII, Viacom Internet Services Inc. , All Rights Reserved)

  • More Special Assignment Stories:
  • Unsafe Skies
  • The Plumber's Test
  • Terrorist's Loophole
  • Armored Ride
  • 'Toxic School' Update

  • MMIII, Viacom Internet Services Inc. , All Rights Reserved
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