If A Supervisor Disagrees With a Mechanic about a Manual Interpretation, Why Doesn’t He Just Take Responsibility for Signing It Off?
With the TWU Local 529 lawsuit against American Airlines for allegedly pressuring mechanics to skirt safety regulations and the recent Southwest Airlines settlement of a whistleblower lawsuit by a mechanic who claimed he was disciplined for finding and reporting cracks in the fuselage of a Boeing 737 aircraft, the question in many people’s minds is what’s going on with maintenance at these airlines? I have that question, too. But the issue I want to discuss here is why so many mechanics are reporting in different venues – and to me privately – that their supervisors are pressuring them to sign work when those supervisors – if they believe the work is proper – can sign off the paperwork themselves?
This isn’t a new issue, it’s been going on since I was turning wrenches years ago. But the problem seems to have become a much more significant issue since several large fines against major airlines resulted in settlement agreements with the FAA that required mechanics at these airlines to perform all maintenance work strictly in accordance with the manual. So if procedures had gotten sloppy over the years or short cuts in task cards were taken, now the direction was not to do that. To strictly follow the letter of the manual.
Many mechanics have now been trained since these agreements were entered into with the FAA to strictly follow the maintenance paperwork and not to deviate from it. So, many of these mechanics are doing just that: if the maintenance work they’re responsible for is not strictly in accordance with the manual – as they interpret it – they’re refusing to sign off the work. You can’t blame them, of course. Not only are mechanics required by the Federal Aviation Regulations to perform work in accordance with the relevant manuals, they have now been specifically trained that their airline is going to hold them accountable for strict compliance.
So then here’s the rub. In the airline business, strict compliance with the manual and keeping to a schedule don’t always work very smoothly. So mechanics raising issues are being pressured to move the work even if the mechanic doesn’t believe it’s in accordance with the manual. Some who have resisted this pressure have found themselves in trouble with their airline. At American, the situation apparently got bad enough in Chicago that the union local felt the only way to get resolution was to file a lawsuit.
Often, according to the mechanics I’ve spoken with, the supervisor appears to disagree with the mechanic’s interpretation of the maintenance requirements. He or she, for example, may think that damage is within limits and that the aircraft can be flown. Or interpret procedures differently than the mechanic. People can disagree about maintenance requirements especially when they involve interpretations of visual observations. So why then don’t the supervisors just use their own authority to sign off the maintenance work if they believe that it’s proper for sign off? Any comments from supervisors would be greatly appreciated. You can, of course, comment anonymously.