With the nation's airlines farming out an increasing amount of maintenance work, the Federal Aviation Administration is struggling to monitor an intricate web of contractors that stretches around the world.
Before deregulation of the industry in 1978, airlines did most of their work themselves, making it relatively simple for regulators to examine records and aircraft to ensure that procedures were being followed properly.
But now that task is far more complicated than experts predicted even five years ago.
U.S. airlines are trying to save money by hiring companies for major tasks such as overhauling engines, and they are farming out maintenance and critical safety-related work such as de-icing to various companies at the many airports they serve.
With this practice -- often called outsourcing -- the potential for misunderstanding inevitably grows, aviation experts say, particularly because few airlines operate exactly the same way.
Federal officials believe that such a misunderstanding may have led to the May 11 crash of a ValuJet DC-9 outside Miami.
The growing use of outsourcing by both start-up airlines like ValuJet and major carriers is not inherently unsafe, experts say.
But such relationships do require more supervision. And the FAA has always assigned its front-line inspectors according to an airline's size, not its use of subcontractors.
"The nature of the beast has changed," said Daniel M. Kasper, an aviation consultant and a member of a 1993 presidential commission that studied the airline industry.
"While flying remains the safest form of transportation, it raises the question of whether the FAA regulatory model has changed sufficiently to oversee these virtual airlines."
ValuJet could be considered a prime example of a "virtual airline," relying heavily on contractors.
Subcontractor Sabretech of Miami is one of six companies that ValuJet hired to do heavy maintenance, and ValuJet has also contracted with more than a dozen other companies, including airlines, to work on its planes at various airports.
A ValuJet dispute with Sabretech centers on oxygen generators, small chemical reactors that produce intense heat when activated. Sabretech, an FAA-authorized maintenance company, removed them from ValuJet MD-80s because the generators' shelf life had expired, and ValuJet officials said they told the contractor to dispose of them.
Sabretech said it was given no such order and boxed up the generators, mislabeled them "Oxy Cannisters, Empty," and returned them to ValuJet.
ValuJet then loaded the boxes into the cargo hold of Flight 592.
Internal FAA records show that on inspectors were concerned about a lack of oversight by ValuJet of its contractors. An vTC inspector found, for instance, that maintenance was not properly documented by one contractor and that ValuJet lacked procedures to make sure it was done.
After an engine broke up in a ValuJet DC-9 that was about to take off from Atlanta last June, the FAA told ValuJet to develop safeguards against acquiring "questionable assets."
The plane was one of nine that ValuJet bought from a Turkish airline, which had worked on the faulty engine for a period when its FAA authorization had lapsed.
As part of its closer scrutiny of ValuJet after the crash, the FAA said it would conduct new inspections of ValuJet's contractors.
ValuJet has suspended its contract with Sabretech, and ValuJet officials said they had improved their internal audit system for working with contractors.
Other internal reports show that the FAA was concerned that its own oversight of ValuJet was insufficient. Its inspection records "clearly show some weakness in the FAA's surveillance," said an internal report released by the agency last month.
In addition, the report recommended to top FAA officials that they consider a top-to-bottom check of ValuJet, in part because of the "absence of adequate policies and procedures for the maintenance personnel to follow."
A separate report described ValuJet as an "unconventional carrier," noting that it contracted out all its maintenance to "geographically diverse low bidders."
In an interview, ValuJet President Lewis H. Jordan said cost was not ValuJet's only consideration in choosing its contractors.
David R. Hinson, the FAA administrator, said the widespread use of outsourcing creates different challenges of oversight for the agency, compared with when airlines were largely self-contained.
Pub Date: 6/02/96