A CBS 2 Special Assignment
May 12, 2003
4:02 pm US/Pacific
(KCBS) 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
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
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
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.
Griffin: "You say it turns into a lower quality of
The problem, says Hafer,
is that federal regulations allow subcontractors to hire unlicensed
"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
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
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
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.
approval, TIMCO sent the work to yet another
The work was never done. Instead of
overhauling the breakers, TIMCOís subcontractor did something
Hafer: "They just cleaned them up and made them look
shiny and put them back on the plane."
Hafer: "Oh it;s criminal. You have
seven potential firebombs on those planes."
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
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
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
Hafer: "In that situation, yeah."
"You're describing a very thin line between a safe flight and a
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."
disgruntled employee is saying you guys have secretaries signing off
on this work."
Krakowski: "Absolutely false, absolutely
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
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.
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
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
"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."
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
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