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Sunday, 15 March 2015

“It must become cheaper, cheaper, cheaper…!” European airliners and maintenance companies try to downgrade aircraft engineers to administrative inspectors, during maintenance work

More than two years ago, I spoke on behalf of my blog with the secretary-general of the Aircraft Engineers International (AEI) association, the Dutchman Fred Bruggeman.

Fred Bruggeman,
secretary-general of Aircraft Engineers International
Click to enlarge
At the time, he came with the revealing and also shocking story that pilots of numerous airliners report many more defects and malfunctions in their logbooks during the return flights back to their home base, than during outward flights. Although the numbers of malfunctions on outward flights and return flights should be nearly equal, from a statistical point of view, Fred and his colleagues of the AEI discovered that enormous deviations existed between those numbers. There was no other explanation for such massive deviations than that defects and malfunctions on the outward flights had been covered up until the return flight, instead of being printed in the logbook; this is in fact fraud and forgery of documents. For the reason for this behaviour, you can have an educated guess!

As many airliners – among those Air France/KLM – go through rough times currently, I wanted to know from Fred, which consequences he saw for the employment, but also for the security situation in The Netherlands and abroad. This renewed contact led to the following interview, on Wednesday 11 March, 2015.

Fred Bruggeman: At this moment, some business is going on which is crucial. At the beginning of next year – 2016 – there will be an excess in maintenance personnel in The Netherlands, as a number of large maintenance projects will be finished. As we speak, there are negotiations between the Dutch unions and the employers, about a voluntary dismissal arrangement for aircraft engineers. You will understand, however, that such an arrangement is not particularly popular at this moment.

And there is more. At this moment we – the AEI – are involved, through our lawyers, in appealing to the EASA – the European Aviation Safety Agency – that it does not maintain the current aviation laws.

During large maintenance operations on airplanes, the jobs must be executed by a blend of mechanics and aircraft engineers (AE). The AE’s are legally responsible for checking the repairing jobs of the mechanics. That is the law in the European aviation industry. The AE’s must sign an official statement that the maintenance job has been executed in the right way, while using the correct documentation, and by qualified mechanics.

A number of maintenance companies is interpreting the European aviation law in such a way, that the maintenance job has only to be checked administratively(!) by the aircraft engineers and not physically anymore. Many companies don’t want those expensive, busybody aircraft engineers to check the maintenance job fysically and real-time anymore, as this takes time and could even lead to a rejection of the work done. The latter is bad news for the maintenance companies. Nevertheless, due to the aviation laws, the aircraft engineers must sign for the quality of the work done. 

The European aviation law is such, that the person who signs for the correct execution of maintenance work, remains responsible for the execution. When the people responsible for the quality of the work are not allowed anymore to check it physically and real time, this will lead to very awkward situations.

This aviation law is created by the EASA, but the assortion of it is left to the national authorities of the European member states. The EASA itself only checks airliners from non-European countries. This means in practice, that if you find that the law is not upheld correctly in f.i. Letland, you first have to start a legal case in Letland itself, to battle with this wrong. Only after about five years you will have reached the level, where the EASA itself can be suppoenaed. This is not how these European laws are meant to be, in my humble opinion.

European legislation should be upheld in an equal fashion anywhere in Europe. Unions cannot start legal cases in all member states, in order to assess national authorities in their application of EASA laws.

All countries within Europe execute and / or uphold EASA aviation laws, but this happens in 27 different ways. This leads to a non-level playing field and in the process unsafe situations. When this situation leads to the circumstance that qualified AE’s cannot physically and real-time check maintenance work, but are nevertheless obliged to sign for it, this would be a perversity of justice. Aviation safety is based upon the principle of check and recheck. Leaving this aspect out of the process, would turn back the clock for at least fourty years.

The difference between an aircraft engineer and a common aircraft mechanic is that the former received a much broader and deeper education than the latter. Therefore the AE is allowed to execute many more tasks independently than the common mechanic; based on his superior training, general knowledge and skills. A bicycle repairman could for instance work as a common aircraft mechanic. Check and recheck of the activities of the common mechanics by aircraft engineers must warrant the safety situation.

At the time that you let AE’s only perform administrative check-ups, based on the maintenance activities executed by others, you need many engineers less. Then you got rid of a large share of those expensive and stubborn AE’s, which are a possible disturbing factor in the timely delivery of an airplane after maintenance. Those darn AE’s state every now and then that an airplane has not been maintained correctly. Floormanagers and foremen are not waiting for such messages. AE’s regularly encounter problems during the executed maintenance, so if you abolish them or let them only check the maintenance paperwork, this will save you a lot of time.

On paper all parties involved state that safety is paramount: “safety first”. Nevertheless… well-trained people cost much more money. As they are trained much longer, aircraft engineers are more expensive. The same is happening at trainings and courses. A training for a certain type of airplane can be followed with a duration of nine weeks, but also with a duration of two weeks. Both trainings yield the same certificate.

Managers tend to choose for the cheapest training and not for the training, which is six times as expensive, but yields much better educated personnel. Especially when they are only looking for someone, who can put a stamp on a report and who is not obliged to perform physical, real-time check-ups of the maintenance work. Companies are dealing with large amounts for such trainings and many people, who should follow them. When you save €30,000 per training and have 20 trainees, you can do the math.

There is much competition between airliners and people already switch airliners for a few bucks less on their ticket fee. Nevertheless, everybody expects to get the same quality, but that isn’t true, of course.

By reducing their number of aircraft engineers – as a pleasant consequence of less physical, real time check ups of maintenance work –  airliners try to make use of a void in the aviation laws. When governments are not focused on this behaviour, the other airliners will follow the lead of such frontrunners, as it saves them a shipload of money.

Before you know it, such behaviour is the market standard. Afterwards the regulations will be adjusted. With a few colleagues, I am currently busy with the establishment of a special fund, in order to start legal battles against such practices.

Things are simple: regulations state that an aircraft engineer has to “verify”(!) that maintenance jobs have been executed correctly, with usage of the right resources and the right tools. In my humble opinion, verifying is not checking from a distance whether people did their job or not. You need to be at the spot where it happens and be ready to intervene, when necessary. When the jobs are administered, I want to know who is going to do which job, so I can follow the inexperienced mechanics more closely. I want to be present, when an inexperienced mechanic is going to undertake important steps of the maintenance process. That is what being an aircraft engineer is all about and for which they are trained.

The aircraft engineer has to sign for the job. When that is in fact impossible, as a consequence of the increasingly administrative nature of the work, they only can stamp and sign such paperwork at the end of the maintenance process. That is not for which aircraft engineers are meant to be.

In The Netherlands and all over Europe, this trend is gaining momentum nowadays. More and more often the authorities accept this as a fact of life and that is extremely dangerous. Some things appear at the surface slowly. At one time, a maintenance manual – for which airliners and maintenance companies receive the certification from the national aviation authorities, approving of their modus operandi for maintenaince jobs – has been adjusted, enabling a less stringent assessment of the activies.

When the aviation authorities overlook  such an adjustment, as they ‘did not get the memo’, the assessment slips away. At that time, the airliners can argue that certain processes were already in their manual and have been applied correctly. When authorities are unaware, that is almost impossible for them to discover. It is virtually impossible to annually scan thousands of pages of manuals, in order to see if one or two lines have been changed.

The aviation laws should be applied within a maintenance company and as a means for this, there is the “Maintenance Operations Exposition” (MOE), in which you describe how you apply the legislation in your company and how you explain this to your personnel. This manual will be officially approved by the national aviation authorities, stating that the execution meets the laws.

However, when 50 adjustments have been made in such a manual, without properly informing the authorities, it is impossible for the authorities to find this out. When an inspection officer does not know what he is doing and is unaware of the changes being made, companies will play a jedi mind trick on him. We see this happen regularly. When inspection officers only check 2% of the MOE during the annual audit, it will take them fifty years to fully read this manual. Companies know that all to well.

You cannot simply state that this will automatically lead to accidents; that dog don’t hunt. An accident is almost always a mixture of circumstances, in which lagging or bad maintenance could be a decisive factor. Safety cannot be quantified in advance. This makes it very hard to display deteriorating quality. Still, the odds for accidents increase eventually. It is like a time bomb, of which you are unaware when the clock is set. The chance for an accident is minimal, but when you are involved in it, you will have a very bad day.

The aviation authorities fail at their assessments and the airliners gladly take the leeway that the lack of serious check-ups offers them. Deteriation of the law starts with such processes of decay. It starts almost unnoticed at one or two companies; they try it and get away with it, without any serious resistance, as they notice that the inspectors are unaware or simply go through the motions, as it is easy to do so. When things go terribly wrong, people are brought to justice for involuntary manslaughter.

The solution is simple: no additional legislation is required, but the legislation that we have should be upheld. Also the inspectors need to improve. It takes a thieve to catch one; people must know where to look. When you slowly demolish the inspection bodies with austerity measures, you should not look surprised when in two years a plane crashes down on Schiphol Amsterdam airport or Charles de Gaulle. Stating that people follow the regulations is not enough, when you do not assess that.  

The murderous competition causes that the only creed of most airliners is: cheaper, cheaper, cheaper! They must work with less people, less authorized personnel and less trainings. When will this change?! KLM Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa and other large airliners are all involved in this rat race. They simply have to... 

When they do their maintenance jobs properly, their tickets will become too expensive. Their competition, the companies that are walking between the rain drops, suddenly demands much lower ticket prices. The cheapest airliner is the one that finds the most loopholes in the aviation laws and profits from it. The rest is sucked in involuntarily, as they otherwise fail to sell tickets.

When the authorities would thoroughly check both the cheapest and most expensive airliners and compare the quality of their maintenance operations, the decay would be removed very quickly. When other companies get away with walking over the edge, the others have to follow.

That many airliners get away with this behaviour, is caused by the lack of serious inspections and serious penalties. When they get caught, they receive the ‘don’t be a bad boy’ speech and then they are finished. In the USA, companies who break the law are simply shut down or they receive draconian penalties. Legislation lags behind in Europe. You can do a lot of nasty things here, without serious consequences. Civilians are traditionally penalized very substantially for traffic offences, but airliners and maintenance companies seem to get away with everything.

Many authorities want to keep good relations with the airliners and put the safety of passengers in jeopardy, actually. When you would shut down a company every now and then, when it messes up, this would send shockwaves through the industry.

I am convinced that jobs disappear in The Netherlands and the rest of Europe, as a consequence of maintenance being executed elsewhere, in a cheaper and less maticulate fashion. We lose jobs because of that. And when the downgrade of aircraft engineers to administrative assessors is carried through further, many more jobs will be abolished. You need fewer people then.

When you take maintenance work seriously, you simply need a certain amount of aircraft engineers, who execute active assessments and actively watch the mechanics do their jobs. Not for every step of the way, but just enough to let maintenance work being executed safely and responsibly. However, that is impossible when an aircraft engineer gets the reports at the end of line, for a stamp. All assessment possibilities are gone then. On top of that, there is the pressure to get the plane back in the air, so it takes a strong personality to withstand the pressure and check the airplane anyway. In such a situation, the aircraft engineer is the fall guy, as he halts the process. Nevertheless, as an aircraft engineer YOU are supposed to put down the stamp!

In earlier times we had one AE for every three mechanics. When in the future only one AE remains per 20 mechanics, who is involved in paperwork only, serious assessments are gone. We see this happen all over Europe. Companies that bend the rules get away with this, as the authorities stand at the side lines and watch things happen. There are no companies where this does NOT happen; everybody is participating more or less.

Aviation authorities have been established to assess, but fail at it, in spite of the fact that they received the mandate from the European parliament. There is a massive lobby going on at the European authorities in order to reduce the mandatory assessments. All large aviation companies (Boeing and Airbus) and airliners are involved in this lobbying process. They state:“assessments must be cheaper, with less personnel involved, because we already achieved so many safety procedures”. They don’t say, however, that the current safety level within the aviation industry is established by assessments and safety checks and not due to those magnificent airliners.

In our conversation of last Wednesday, Fred Bruggeman stated that the problem with the difference in numbers of defects between outward flights and return flights is still extremely topical. He and his fellow AEI-members have been involved for years in convincing the national aviation authorities to give serious attention to this mounting problem, but he gets constantly ‘no’ for an answer.

When asked, the Dutch aviation authorities state that the statements of the AEI about the numbers of defects are not correct, but nevertheless they are not willing to check the logbooks of a certain number of airplanes, just as a proof that they are indeed right about that. 

Thus, the Dutch and foreign authorities seem to rather lean backward than to do their job, until things go terribly wrong once again, like what happened in 2008 with the Turkish Airlines flight near Schiphol. This plane crashed, after a multiple times defective altitude meter, which had not been reported in the logbook before, fatally misled the pilots. Don’t let such a catastrophy happen again.


  1. Today 24 of march 2015 another crash hapened in south of France near Digne, 150 passengers and crew lost their life.
    The aircraft of Germanwing the low cost carrier of Lufthansa was about 30 years old, let see the conclusion of investiagation specialy about maintenance of the airframe as a lot of aircraft of that age need to be in safety airwortiness conditions a lot of extremely costly repairs due to corosion of the sheetmetal.
    What is the price of each of these 150 passengers

    1. Let's see. I was shocked to hear about the accident and I am very curious about how this will turn out in the end. Will this indeed be a maintenance-related incident?

  2. Th. Becker, Certifying Engineer25 March 2015 at 20:30

    I’m sure that some maintenance managers and also some LBA officials had sleepless nights since that accident. If it turns out that incorrect maintenance is the reason for that accident than there can be only one solution. Stop that irresponsible way of doing maintenance on high tech products with low cost mechanics and come back to the legal way were well trained inspectors performing a physical check on every work done on an aircraft.

  3. Thank you Theo(?) for your comment. I highly appreciate it when experts take part in the discussion. I wrote this article before the terrible accident in France and the almost accident in St-Petersburg, Russia, but even before these accidents, this way of saving expenses just did not feel good