< HOME  Monday, June 12, 2006

Mechanics pressured to put defective planes in air

Be very worried before getting on a plane because airlines REALLY don't give a sh*t whether their planes can fly - as long as their profits do.
Mechanics with Air Canada's main regional airline say they regularly feel pressured to cut corners and to put planes in the air with defects that could compromise public safety.

* * *

A dozen maintenance engineers with Air Canada Jazz, all of whom work at the company's Toronto operation, say economic demands to keep planes flying often outweigh safety decisions they would like to make. Four of them have taken the unusual step of publicly stating their concerns.
In other words, they have a conscience. Ghee, that is unusual.
"The pressure to get a plane out is unbelievable," says Jazz mechanic Grant Anastas. "I don't get a sense that management wants to get a plane out safely. It's just, `Get it out.' Nobody wants to get hit with a delay."

The airline, which was the subject of a highly critical Transport Canada audit in 2003, denies the allegations and says safety is a top priority.

"Jazz never compromises safety," the company said in a written response. "While on-time performance is definitely a goal at Jazz, we never sacrifice safety in order to achieve an on-time flight departure."

Jazz is the country's second largest airline (next to Air Canada) and one of the world's largest regional carriers. It carries nearly 6 million people a year on a fleet of 136 planes that fly to 80 North American cities. The airline was created in 2002 with the merging of AirBC, Air Nova, Air Ontario and Canadian Regional.
HOLY cow! That's some merger! Where's antitrust law when you need it?
The Jazz mechanics who spoke with reporters say they fight to keep planes with mechanical defects on the ground by refusing to sign the aircraft out for service. But they say that in many cases their superiors simply find other mechanics to sign out the planes — or sign it out themselves — to avoid costly flight delays or cancellations.

"It's sad to say, but I'm nervous flying on my own airline," says Ronald Anstey, a crew chief at the airline's Toronto hangar. "I have had supervisors ask me to sign out damage that is out-of-limits, been repaired incorrectly (or) repaired illegally. When I refuse, I get looked upon as being a troublemaker ... I feel that management is more concerned with on-time performance than delivering a safe aircraft to the gate."

The explosive allegations raise disturbing questions about the safety of Canada's highly competitive air industry. An ongoing investigation into aviation safety by the Toronto Star, Hamilton Spectator and The Record of Waterloo Region has found a system straining to keep pace with increasingly crowded skies. More than 80,000 passengers have been put at risk during the past five years when airplanes came dangerously close together in Canadian skies. Meanwhile, mechanical problems and alleged violations of air regulations are on the rise.
Ah, but who really cares anyway? Passengers won't know the difference until it's too late. And when an "accident" happens, insurance "pays for it" (and subsequently raises rates). Isn't money all that matters, anyway?
In one dramatic incident in 2002, a three-foot-long piece of the leading edge of the wing of a Jazz Dash 8 fell off on takeoff in Toronto. The crew noticed a vibration of the flight controls and returned. In an investigation report, the Transportation Safety Board attributed the incident to sloppy maintenance.

Jazz mechanics say it could have caused a crash.

"It was a small piece that shot off. If it was a larger one, that aircraft would have disappeared," said Gianni Ballestrin, 34, a maintenance engineer at Jazz for seven years. "They would have lost total control of the aircraft. They wouldn't have survived it."

"They put the screws in the top, but they never put screws in the bottom," says Anastas. "Then (a supervisor) pulled the guy that was doing the job ... to do another job. ... They pulled him off and he never went back to finish."

The TSB probe found that a mechanic working on the job was called away by a supervisor before finishing.

"Before the apprentice (mechanic) was able to do much more than cut the sealant on the right wing leading edge, he was re-tasked to the ramp," the report reads.

The TSB also found that another mechanic on the job "felt rushed when it was obvious that the task would not be completed before the end of his shift," that the responsibilities of crew chief "are not well documented and no formal training is provided," and that the company "did not have a specific procedure for communicating the status of work at the shift turnover."

The report also found the company's ratio of experienced to inexperienced mechanics was "undesirably low."

Jazz conducted an internal investigation into the incident and found "a number of deficiencies," which led to changes in procedure, says the TSB report. The company says the accident was not a result of rushed mechanics failing to do the job carefully.
We give them plenty of time to complete their tasks. They're just lazy and stupid - just like all you uppity readers that need to put your faith in the dollar, shut up, pay up, and fly.
Dave Avella, another Jazz mechanic who has been with the company for nine years, acknowledges that keeping the planes in the air causes extreme pressures.

"In the aircraft maintenance environment there is a lot of stress and duress. The pressures of on-time performance sometimes cloud the objective of the aircraft maintenance engineers' quality and attention to detail," he says. "There are certain things we'd like to address but we can't because we don't have time to do it and/or the company doesn't want to keep that airplane down."

That, he says, can put brutal pressure on the mechanics: "The endless 12-hour night shifts, not seeing their families for days on end, the physical attributes of working night and day rotations, the chemicals ... the list goes on."

A Transport Canada audit of the airline in 2003 found "the focus of the maintenance and operations departments was compromised to the extent that several of the most basic regulatory and quality control tasks had deteriorated."

Jazz spokeswoman Debra Williams says those issues were all corrected following the audit.

"It was three years ago. There has been significant change since then. We worked with Transport Canada to address all of those items."
Oh yeah?
But Jazz was again forced to make changes to its maintenance practices after a September 2004 incident in which pilots at the controls of a Dash 8 on a Kingston-to-Toronto run had difficulty controlling the plane.

About 30 seconds after takeoff, the captain declared an emergency later found to be related to loose nuts in the plane's pitch control system that fell off.

While the plane eventually landed safely, a TSB investigation found deficiencies in Jazz's mechanical procedures, including inadequate inspection of work that failed to reveal the nuts were not tightened. The airline's flight-crew training was also criticized for not adequately preparing pilots for such a failure.

* * *

In addition to Anastas, Anstey, Avella and Ballestrin, eight other Jazz mechanics spoke on the condition their names not be used. They fear repercussions if Jazz knew who they were. The four who spoke on the record have similar concerns but feel public safety is more important than any disciplinary action they may face.

Several mechanics agreed that, on average, a Jazz plane leaves Pearson once a week with mechanical deficiencies that are in contravention of Canadian regulations. They say they have lodged verbal complaints with Transport Canada inspectors, but say they've seen little evidence of action from the regulator.

"I'd be very surprised if that were the normal case," says Merlin Preuss, head of civil aviation with Transport Canada. "If specific complaints were brought to my attention they would certainly be investigated."

Among the most serious allegations is that rubber O-rings — used as seals in various mechanical parts of aircraft — are reused, even though once used they are often misshapen and won't fit properly again.

"The maintenance manual standard practice is you never reuse an O-ring, ever," a mechanic said. "You put a new one (in) it because when it seals, it seals appropriately," said another.

"But at Jazz, if you don't have an O-ring, don't worry about it. Clean it, reuse it in the same place.

"Their idea is we have a $30 million aircraft that's going to fly 75 people from Toronto to Houston and it's grounded for a $50 ring. `Just put it back. Put it back.' I say, `No, get the part.' ... But they pressure us."

Jazz denies the allegations.

"We follow established standard operational procedures and manufacturers' standards in everything we do, including the replacement of disposable parts."

I don't know what you people are complaining about. Aren't people disposable too?

Anstey, who has been with Jazz for eight years, says there is an ongoing problem with resources and skills that undermine safety.

"My company doesn't want to spend the money needed on proper tools or parts. We have people working that have never received any specific aircraft training," he says. "Most of the time their work goes unsupervised, due to the amount of work needed nightly to maintain a fleet of aging aircraft."

Of the 750 non-management mechanics that work for Jazz, 16 per cent are unlicensed apprentices who work under the supervision of licensed mechanics, the company says.

Fatigue in Jazz's Toronto maintenance crew is another problem, says Anstey.

Most of the work on aircraft happens between 11 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., he says.

"I have worked midnight shifts for over eight years, and no matter how hard you fight, you're exhausted at 4 a.m. Imagine having a worker that is falling asleep who is replacing an engine. It is very easy to forget a bolt here, connect a cannon plug there. . ... Lack of sleep, stress and other distractions has caused a lot of mishaps that the flying public never see."

The company says night shifts are standard for mechanics in the airline industry and that their employees receive "adequate rest between shifts. In fact, Jazz's policy concerning maintenance crew rest exceeds Transport Canada's regulatory requirements."

One mechanic said the regional jets Jazz flies often have door seal problems.

Such a problem in June 2003 was so extreme that daylight could be seen through a crack and a curtain was pulled through the door. An emergency landing followed.

According to the mechanic: "We had one (recently) that was all cracked, all damaged and I called it in and they basically said, `Well, we'll see if we can just get this flight because it will be overnighting in Toronto.' I fought them on it. I didn't let it go."

The mechanic said that silicone is often used for a temporary repair: "When time is tight, one quick fix the airline uses is to seal it up with silicone."

It's not known if the June 2003 incident was related to that practice.

In its statement, Jazz says its mechanics "utilize repair sealant for temporary repair of door seals as recommended by the manufacturer's Repair Engineer Order, or REO," adding that the company will "never compromise safety to accommodate on-time performance."

Mechanics such as Ballestrin say they now think twice when they step on an airplane.

"Before I got into aviation I used to get on an aircraft and not think anything about it. Knowing what I know now every time I get on I look around. ... It's just not a good feeling anymore when I have to fly."

He says his seven years in the industry has left him disillusioned.

"It's all about the money. Sadly that's why safety is second. They'll always tell you `safety first' because that's what the public want to hear. It's on-time performance first, safety second."
Think about THAT next time you board a plane. And remember, the trade off is THEIR money - YOUR life.


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