Airline mechanics feel pressured to overlook potential safety problems: "Accident waiting to happen"

Airline mechanics speak out on safety issues

Airline mechanics say they feel pressured by management to look the other way when they see potential safety problems on airplanes, an eight-month-long CBS News investigation reveals. In some of the cases, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed with those mechanics.

The U.S. aviation system is experiencing an unparalleled period of safety, with only one death involving a passenger airline in the last decade. But in our interviews with more than two dozen airline mechanics, they speak of the pressure to turn aircraft around faster that sometimes can be too much, reports CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave. They blame it on an economic reality of the airline business: a plane only makes an airline money when it's flying passengers.

Cell phone video captured a tense exchange between an American Airlines mechanic and a manager in 2017.

"We're an accident waiting to happen," the mechanic could be heard saying.

The FAA found reason to believe a Miami-based mechanic was retaliated against after reporting problems that pulled several planes out of service.

"You single out one guy because he's doing his job. What about all of us? What's going to happen to us when we do our jobs?" the mechanic can be heard saying.

Gary Santos, a long time American Airlines mechanic based in New York, described it as "a short-cut environment." He said he's risking his job by speaking on camera.

"They try to pressure the individual not to write it up," Santos said.

"They'd rather you not report a maintenance issue?" Van Cleave asked.

"Right," Santos responded.

While a sometimes tense relationship between management and mechanics is not uncommon, every one of the 26 airline mechanics we spoke to – two thirds from American and the rest from Southwest Airlines – described being pressured by managers to focus only on the work assigned.

"If you're working, say, on a landing gear, lubing it, and you notice that a flap three feet away is leaking, and you write up the flap leak, you're beyond your scope," one mechanic said.

Their claims are backed up by findings in several FAA whistleblower complaints about inappropriate pressure and retaliation since 2015 at the two airlines – and at least 32 other anonymous industry-wide reports between 2015 to 2018.

"I've seen people walked off the job, held on suspension for a month or more because they've reported problems that they supposedly were outside their scope for finding," the mechanic said.

Several American mechanics – all with decades on the job – spoke on the condition we not show their faces, saying they feared retaliation.

"You constantly have people over your shoulder questioning why it takes so long. 'Can't we skip a few steps?'" another mechanic said.

"Have you had managers use the words 'can't we skip some steps'?" Van Cleave asked.

"Absolutely," the mechanic responded. "The pressure is there and, you know, the threats of termination and walking you off the airfield, as they would say, are very real and common place."

The mechanics come from bases all over the country. One mechanic told CBS News the pressure was for "significant safety issues."

"Things that needed to be repaired. Worn tires, worn brakes, damage to the fuselage," he said.

CBS News obtained a transcript of a December 2017 Southwest employee conference call where senior VP of technical operations Landon Nitschke acknowledged: "We definitely need to repair some things with the FAA… there are some things there with… [mechanics] getting questioned. Supervisors certainly getting questioned...so again, compliance, compliance, compliance."

Capt. Dave Hunt is Southwest's senior director of safety management. "I think that is a good indicator of what our leadership tells our employees," Hunt said. "It is our highest priority."

"But you don't feel like your mechanics are being unduly pressured or threatened, chastised, criticized for finding issues that are out of scope?" Van Cleave asked.

"I think any issue that's brought forward to us is taken seriously, acted upon, investigated, and we act on those. So any way we hear about an instance, we carefully review those," Hunt said.

"But you're stopping short of saying that's not happening," Van Cleave pointed out.

"Whenever we become aware of a safety-related event, we take them all seriously and we act on all of them the same way," Hunt said.

Former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia said it's unusual for so many mechanics to speak out publicly.

"That's standing out on the top of the hill screaming at the top of your lungs," Goglia said, acknowledging "there's no question that there's a problem."

He believes the pressure to speed up repairs and get planes back in service faster is a problem for mechanics industry wide.

"You have two dozen. I've probably had over a hundred over the past three or four years that have called me with those kinds of complaints, and I'm talking about calls from every single airline," Goglia said.

David Seymour is a senior vice president at American.

"Safety is part of the culture and they know if they don't do it safely, they're not to do it at all," Seymour said.

"Does it concern you that we're hearing a different account from a number of mechanics?" Van Cleave asked.

"It's not a concern for me because I think we have programs in place to make sure that they can report them," Seymour said.
 
"You say it's not a concern, we talked to a former NTSB board member who said based on the number of people we have talked to… and that several went on camera isn't just a red flag, he called it a field of red flags," Van Cleave said.

"What I will tell you is allegations have been made, but almost all of them have been dismissed. There have been some issues we've had to address, but again, there's never been an allegation made that American Airlines flew an aircraft that was unsafe," Seymour said.

Both Southwest and American are locked in tense union negotiations with mechanics over pay and benefits.

"Should people be concerned about the planes they're getting on today?"

"I get on them every day so I am not concerned… it's like climbing a ladder where the top rung may be an accident or a serious incident," Goglia said. "Every time you don't do something the way it's supposed to be done, you're climbing another rung in the ladder… and it takes several rungs when you start getting up there the risk starts to get severe."

"Do you worry that pressure is going to result in an accident? Something is not going to get fixed?" Van Cleave asked Santos.

"Those things keep me up at night," Santos responded.

These mechanics tell us they worry how the pressure they describe will impact the overall safety culture over time. In the Miami situation, American said it does not believe it was a case of retaliation. That mechanic is on the job today.

One FAA official told us while they do see cases of undue pressure, they believe the vast majority of employees are trying to do the right thing.

Watch more from our investigation Monday night on the "CBS Evening News."

Southwest Airline's full statement to CBS News: 

"Southwest is fully committed to ensuring the Safety of our Customers and Employees. We continuously work to create and foster a Culture of Safety that proactively identifies and manages risks to the operation and workplace. With a fleet of 750 planes and 4,000 flights a day, we have a rigorous and well-run program. Safety has always been our highest priority—from day one to today and always. We are absolutely confident that our maintenance policies, procedures, and programs ensure the Safety and airworthiness of our aircraft.

Maintaining a Culture of Safety Compliance is the most important thing we do and Southwest Employees are our most valuable asset in operating with the highest degree of Safety. Intimidation or bullying of any kind is not tolerated. If intimidation or bullying is reported, we have processes established to investigate and take action to address the matter. Southwest's unwavering commitment to a positive and stable work environment stretches across nearly five decades and flows across all levels of our workforce and leadership.

While we do expect our mechanics to work their assigned tasks, we do not prohibit employees from raising safety concerns at any time and, in fact, encourage the reporting of safety concerns through our 24-hour automated Safety Reporting System. Southwest is committed to promptly addressing any issues that might be raised. We work directly with our local FAA Certificate Management Office which oversees our FAA-approved maintenance program to assure that processes and procedures are followed in the interest of safety.

Southwest is hands down one of the best companies in the world to work for with an unprecedented safety record. Our friends, our families board these flights and not a single one of us would put anything above their safety – this mission unites us all.

Regarding Landon Nitschke reference during a Dec. 6, 2017 'It's Your Call' event where he references the FAA: We were continuing our work on aligning, both as a Company and as individuals, with the FAA Compliance Philosophy introduced in 2015 which shifted oversight from an enforcement-focused regulatory model to a more transparent, problem-solving approach that allows safety problems to be understood through an open exchange of information between the agency and the airline. This is a shift from how airlines have historically worked with the FAA, and it requires a mutual effort to build trust and a change in mindset. We applaud the refreshed Compliance Philosophy and agree that it's a more effective model of oversight for today's aviation system. Strengthening our relations with the FAA is a priority that, as with any valued relationship, requires dedication and an unwavering commitment by our People.

And in regards to his comment 'It's going to be our theme song for 2018': Nothing is more important in our business than Safety and, as such, compliance is always a theme. As we were continuing our work with the FAA to prepare for Extended Operations this year, sound implementation and execution of our operational policies and procedures will be as important as ever. We asked each Leader to underscore the importance of keeping compliance top of mind in everything our Employees do."

Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association's statement to CBS News:

"The Aircraft Mechanic Fraternal Association (AMFA) – representing more than 2400 Southwest Aircraft Maintenance Technicians releases the following statement:

The FAA has found, Southwest Airlines maintenance managers engage in coercive tactics that result in a 'capitulation of airworthiness and a culture of fear and retribution.'

American law, specifically the AIR 21 whistleblower statute, has provided the necessary means to resist management pressure to turn a blind eye to corrosion, gouges, and other significant aircraft damage.

Now, however, Southwest Airlines – already the major airline with the fewest mechanics per aircraft – is demanding the right to have its aircraft maintenance work performed in foreign countries that do not safeguard the professional integrity and compliance requirements of our profession.  The interests of American workers – many who are military veterans, and the security of the traveling public – demand that this safety sensitive work be performed in our own country." 

FAA statement to CBS News: 

"The nation's aviation system is safer than ever. Commercial aviation remains the safest form of travel because multiple and redundant levels of safety are built into the system.

Safety enforcement is never static. The FAA constantly works to improve consistency, safety data collection, and risk analysis. The U.S. has the largest, most diverse, and most complex airspace system in the world. Oversight is a dynamic process that requires the FAA and the airline industry to constantly strive for safety improvements. We welcome any opportunity to enhance what already is the safest aerospace system in the world.

The FAA's enforcement is designed to identify and mitigate potential risks before they affect safety. We investigate all allegations of safety standards violations, regardless of the source. We continue to be involved in investigations related to both American and Southwest Airlines. If those safety allegations are substantiated, we will take swift and appropriate action. We cannot discuss specific details until those investigations are complete."