How Poor Aircraft Maintenance can Cause the Loss of Lives


While aircraft contain a plethora of advanced technologies and systems that have made flight one of the safest methods of traveling by far, there are still incidents in which they face tragic accidents. Across most accidents that occur within the commercial aviation sector, a majority are due to human error. Human error can cause many types of accidents, ranging from a miscalculation by a pilot to incorrect directions provided by an air traffic controller. As one of the three primary causes of accidents, incorrect or poor aircraft maintenance can result in a variety of issues that can lead to dangerous situations. On top of presenting a safety risk, negligent maintenance can also cause delays, financial burdens, and other issues for the airline or aircraft operator. As such, being more on top of maintenance scheduling and ensuring that procedures are carried out correctly is paramount to the safety of an aircraft.

While any aircraft operator can tell you that maintenance is a costly and timely procedure, there are very good reasons for it. Despite maintenance often accounting for 10-45% of yearly expenditures, such procedures ensure that aircraft remain airworthy and safe for flight. During each of the various inspection processes, maintenance workers are tasked with identifying any concerning parts or areas, conducting repairs and replacements, and carrying out overhauls as needed to keep performance and reliability high. As aircraft are complex machines with a multitude of systems and parts, quality maintenance requires exceptional workers and sufficient time to address everything needed.

Aircraft maintenance is typically divided into two categories which are scheduled and unscheduled activities. Scheduled maintenance is often conducted at set intervals according to manufacturer specifications, flight cycles, and aviation regulations. The intervals at which aircraft should be maintained is also based on active flight hours as well, thus keeping track of schedules and aircraft usage is important. With unscheduled maintenance, however, inspections and repairs are conducted as needed when an issue arises. In both types, the primary objective is to promote the safety and reliability of the aircraft, address any damages or deterioration of parts, and minimize the chance of equipment failure.

While adhering to maintenance schedules is crucial for maintaining the health and integrity of an aircraft, it is not a guarantee that there will be no issues after such procedures. In the ten-year period between 1994 and 2004, the United States saw over 42% of its fatal aircraft accidents caused by poorly maintained aircraft equipment. Furthermore, upwards of 12% of all aviation accidents have cited a maintenance issue as the main cause of the incident. As such, it is also critical that MRO facilities and operators ensure that their maintenance processes are carried out safely and correctly. Generally speaking, poor maintenance can result from many issues, all of which can pose risks if not attended to or remedied. With weak organizational processes, inadequate worker skills or experience, constant time pressure, worker fatigue, and more, procedures and maintenance endeavors may not be carried out correctly and may result in later issues coming up during flight operations.

Over the years, such maintenance issues have led to various aircraft accidents, such as American Airlines flight 191 in 1979 where an engine separated from the wing during the takeoff procedure. When investigations were held for the accident, it was found that poor maintenance damaged the engine and pylon assembly which led to a failure of the structure. While the pylon assembly could have been fully replaced after it was previously damaged in maintenance, the team chose to modify the structure instead to save time. As such, the damage remained and thus resulted in a fatal and tragic accident.

In more recent years leading up to the present, aircraft accidents in general have begun to decrease across the board. This is due to a variety of factors, ranging from new maintenance practices to better technology that allows for more efficient operations. Nevertheless, there is always room for further improvements to procedures, and there are various ways in which maintenance can be worked on for increased safety. Although technicians may be highly skilled and have many years of experience, they should always undergo regular re-training in order to maintain their knowledge and expand upon it with new procedures and methods. Additionally, all airline management personnel and aircraft engineers should also undergo training for human factors. As a final recommended procedure for maintenance, there should always be ways for personnel to report issues and incidents that occur, and such people should be legally protected for coming forward with such information. By enacting such practices, the aircraft maintenance industry can continue to promote more safe practices and lower the chances of accidents even more.

For the aircraft owner or operator, one can further ensure that their aircraft is safe by adhering to set maintenance schedules and finding maintenance facilities that are certified and have qualified personnel. Generally, airframe and powerplant mechanics who are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tend to be good options for carrying out MRO procedures. Furthermore, maintenance shops that are affiliated with the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA) can be very reliable as the organization is centered around the ethical and professional practices of aviation maintenance. Lastly, it can also be beneficial to speak with other airliners and aircraft operators, as their experiences can lead you to a more trustworthy source for conducting maintenance endeavors.

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April 20, 2021

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