Since the 1990s the safety implications of outsourcing aircraft maintenance in the US airline industry have become the subject of regulatory scrutiny and public debate. The discussion has emanated from a number of well-publicised crashes that have been attributed primarily to faulty outsourced maintenance, including the loss of a ValuJet airliner in Florida in 1996 and the crash of an Air Midwest commuter aircraft in 2003. While the overall safety performance of air travel has improved, concerns have been raised that increased outsourcing and offshoring of aircraft maintenance may contribute to a dangerous nexus between cost-cutting and weaker regulatory oversight with negative implications for future aviation safety. Drawing primarily on official investigations, we examine a number of serious aviation incidents and accidents in the USA where maintenance was outsourced to see what lessons can be drawn. Our study found that the existing modes of inquiry into the dangers of aircraft maintenance fail to draw upon recognised failure mechanisms associated with outsourcing/subcontracting trends in other industries, such as economic pressures, contingent employment, training deficits and poor regulatory oversight that can undermine safety outcomes. While we do not seek to establish a statistical association between rates of outsourcing/offshoring and rates of accidents and incidents, this article highlights a range of potential risk factors present in the US airline industry that provide salutary warnings for the global industry.
- Aviation maintenance