American Airlines, one of the first U.S. carriers to resume flights of the Boeing 737 Max, has slashed the training time for people who will repair and maintain the airplane – prompting one senior mechanic to file a report with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Gary Santos, a crew chief at American’s base at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport recently received 4 hours of instruction making him qualified to work on the Max and to inspect the work of others. It is one-tenth the amount of time that was set aside to teach mechanics about the airplane prior to the crashes of two Maxes that killed 346 people in 2018 and 2019. At that time, 40-hours was considered appropriate to instruct mechanics on the latest version of the Boeing 737.
“Everybody is shaking their heads, this is not realistic training,” said Santos, who has worked for American for 33 years.
Under a cooperative agreement with unions, the airline and the FAA, workers are encouraged to report safety concerns through a program called Aviation Safety Action Program. ASAP reports, usually confidential, are non-punitive investigations carried out by all three entities. Santo’s complaint was filed with the ASAP program.
After attending the 4-hour class, Santos reported he was left unable to complete inspections sometimes required of him on the airplane’s troubled maneuvering characteristics augmentation system or MCAS.
“I’m supposed to have a working knowledge of the system so if I see any errors, I can stop them,” Santos said. But his questions about MCAS were not addressed. The class, he said, “never discussed what the faults were or if we got them, what are the remedies.”
What he and others were told, Santos said, was that any problem with the MCAS had to be fixed before the plane could fly again.
“The FAA-required training for mechanics doesn’t include MCAS as there isn’t ongoing or specialized maintenance of the system,” American Airlines said in an email. Spokeswoman Sarah Jantz acknowledges American shortened the length of the training after instructors and mechanics who took the class before the two disasters in Indonesia and Ethiopia, reported instruction was repetitive of the material offered by Boeing. The majority of the airline’s mechanics had that class, American said.
That is not the case at airports like JFK where the Max did not operate and mechanics never received any Max training. As a result, Santos and his co-workers get 4 hours of instruction which barely references the issues leading to the Max accidents or the changes mandated before they were certified to fly once again.
“Because MCAS affects flight control “our 737 pilots are required to complete additional training now that the aircraft is recertified,” Jantz said.
“I would reject that argument,” said Bob Clifford, an aviation attorney who represents family members who lost loved ones in the 737 Max crashes.
“It is mixing apples and oranges. The work of maintenance is separate and distinct from the safety flight operations in the cockpit. Any interruption on the chain of safety – and certainly maintenance is in that chain – needs to be closely scrutinized and vetted with complete transparency.”
According to American, mechanics are entitled to learn more about MCAS in an elective course, found on the training website. Until questioned about it, Santos was unaware that the online class was available. But after taking it said it was “decent” and that the airline should make it mandatory.
Tension between aviation workers and airlines over the length and manner of training is not a new issue and it can be linked to income, as travel to training centers and overnighting there is time on the clock. Over the years I’ve heard plenty of pilots complain when classroom training was replaced by computer modules viewed from home.
“Making an allegation based on the number of hours of training doesn’t imply anything,” said John McDonald, the former VP of Corporate Communication for American Airlines, now a crisis consultant at Caeli Communications. That said, ASAP reports should be investigated, McDonald said.
“Any allegation should be taken seriously. You need to understand where the person is coming from so there are no blind spots between what you think is appropriate and what the mechanics need.”
Mechanics at American can be members of one of two unions, the International Association of Mechanics and the Transportation Union Workers. Santos notified Gary Schaible, president of TWU local 591 which represents about 45-hundred mechanics about his problems with the shortened training.
“He is a top-notch mechanic,” Schaible said of Santos. “They’re legitimate concerns. Everybody should have the how and the why because it sets the safety mindset going forward.”
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.