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Aviation Industry Insider Shines Bright Light on Dark Secrets

In Attention All Passengers: The Airlines’ Descent—And How to Reclaim Our Skies, William J. McGee makes several unsettling claims. Unfortunately, many of these claims are difficult to refute and even more difficult to forget; McGee justifies his claims with painstaking research and frightening insights about commercial air safety.  He argues that passenger safety is being compromised through a litany of cost cutting measures: outsourcing aircraft maintenance, relying heavily on small regional airlines, unprofessional handling of baggage by undertrained employees, and booking planes beyond their capacity. Not only does this result in poor service; it can lead to aviation accidents, catastrophic injuries, and wrongful death.

In an interview with National Public Radio McGee says “‘There have been a lot of high-profile cases of TSA employees who take bags into the back room, and when they come back out, things are missing’“ and “‘[t]o some extent the TSA has managed to get a handle on that, but it’s really part of a much bigger, systemic problem within the industry … [about] how many functions revolving around commercial aviation that are outsourced’” (“Why Flying is No Fun And May be More Dangerous”). Often, he argues in the book and interview, that this outsourcing is particularly troubling when it involves mechanical servicing. Much of the service is performed by unlicensed mechanics in the United States but also by workers in Singapore, China, Mexico and El Salvador. They may work much cheaper than airline employees.

McGee, who is a former airlines operation manager and licensed FAA aircraft dispatcher, says he has heard multiple complaints by airline employees about the conditions of their planes when they returned from service abroad.  “‘Among the problems they’ve talked about are doors that were not sealed properly… There are problems with engines that have had to be shut down, and there are serious problems that have led to smoke in the cabin,’” he says. “‘And any time you have smoke in the cabin, that could lead to catastrophe.

Though some outsourcing may not lead to safety hazards and some mechanical outsourcing may be of exceptional quality, the safety issues cannot be overlooked. Where is the accountability? How can the FAA ensure safety if they cannot determine where work on planes was completed? Inevitably, more tragedy, more personal injury litigation, more wrongful death suits, and more complex aviation legal battles will result.

Over the last decade, improved pilot training, new technology and more safety precautions have made flying less hazardous in many ways. Of course, it only takes one mistake, one poorly performed maintenance check, or one tragic cost-cutting measure to cause an aviation catastrophe. There are very few insignificant plane crashes. As a result, safety should always be a priority, but, if McGee is right, profit is trumping concern for passengers. This problem is not altogether new even though the industry does have an impressive safety record. But, McGee writes, ““that record might be hard to sustain” in a 2011 opinion piece for the New York Times.

In researching his latest book, he confirmed many of the ideas that he wrote in that 2011 article. The very same day in 2011 that a flight bound for Sacramento had to be diverted for an emergency landing because a 5-foot hole in the roof ripped open midair, Congress voted to reduce the FAA budget, he reports. This would be no irony at all if the reduction in budget lead to safer skies. But outsourcing and a reduced ability to regulate the maintenance of aircraft has not led to greater safety, McGee claims. “Outsourcing, under which airlines shift repair and maintenance work from union employees to low-wage workers overseas and in the United States, compounds the already existing burden on safety inspectors” he writes in the piece. Much to his frustration, the problem has only increased since 2011. How many families will lose loved ones and suffer emotional and physical cataclysm because of poorly funded public oversight and obsession with private profit in the airline industry?