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THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 592

Budget Airlines' Repairs Endorsed

Maintenance: Small carriers follow same standards as larger ones, with work often performed by outside contractors, experts say.

May 14, 1996|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Although budget airlines often use older planes, offer fewer amenities and pay lower salaries, the maintenance that their aircraft receive is in many cases much the same as that of the major carriers, industry analysts said Monday.

Unlike the large, famous-name airlines, smaller carriers generally do not operate their own major maintenance facilities, capable of doing everything from full-scale overhauls to re-engineering individual parts.

They have such work done on contract, either by larger carriers, such as Delta or American, or by Federal Aviation Administration-certified repair stations, such as B. F. Goodrich Aerospace or Dynair, whose sole business is to perform maintenance for smaller airlines and corporate aircraft owners.

Although "outsourcing," as the practice is known, has been a staple of the aviation business for years, the trend has picked up since the industry was deregulated and more airlines entered the business, says Kenneth Quinn, former FAA general counsel.

The service received by the ValuJet DC-9 that crashed in the Everglades Saturday is expected to be a chief subject of scrutiny as federal investigators search for the cause.

Confirmation that the crew reported smoke in the cockpit in the minutes before the crash has already raised suspicions of a possible equipment malfunction.

ValuJet officials were not available for comment on Monday, but some reports have indicated the airline outsources maintenance work in smaller cities. Minor repairs are done at 29 line maintenance centers.

Economics is the major factor in determining how an airline's maintenance is performed. Setting up full service maintenance facilities takes a lot of capital and requires a substantial number of full-time technicians. Smaller airlines prefer to contract out the work, effectively sharing the cost with the maintenance facility's other clients.

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Industry analysts insist that the work done by outside repair facilities has been considered satisfactory--all must be FAA-certified and are inspected periodically by agency officials.

FAA Administrator David Hinson, who has headed the agency since August 1993, told reporters on Monday that there was no correlation between the fact that an airline offers tickets at a discount and the safety standards it must meet.

"The price of a ticket that a passenger pays for is totally irrelevant to the FAA's oversight," he said during a press conference. He insisted that the FAA had been "exemplary" in its oversight of ValuJet.

Besides smaller airlines, many of the major carriers also contract out for some of their maintenance. And large airlines, such as American, Delta, United and TWA, all provide maintenance services under contract for other airlines.

Mike Rioux, a vice president of the Air Transport Assn., which represents 24 major carriers, predicts that with the advent of more and more smaller airlines, "you're going to see more and more of the larger carriers get into the [maintenance] business. It's going to be the trend."

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