Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk

Post originally Published February 1, 2024 || Last Updated February 1, 2024

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Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Skirting the Rules

Foreign air carriers operating in the United States may not face the same level of oversight as domestic carriers, allowing some to skirt basic safety rules and putting passengers at risk. Unlike U.S. airlines, foreign carriers are not subject to routine announced inspections by the FAA. Some manage to operate for years without ever being assessed. This creates a situation where airlines can cut corners on maintenance, training and other safety issues.

For example, Pakistan International Airlines had not faced an FAA inspection for over a decade when one of its planes crashed in 2016, killing all 47 on board. An investigation found the accident was likely due to an uncontained engine failure, pointing to lack of proper maintenance. Yet the airline had no oversight to catch such issues.
Other foreign airlines have similarly dodged scrutiny, sometimes with dire consequences. A Caribbean airline went more than 15 years without an FAA review. When regulators finally inspected the carrier’s planes in 2017, they discovered major maintenance deficiencies that could have caused in-flight engine shutdowns.

Without regular inspections, some foreign operators have gotten away with using uncertified aircraft parts or skipping required maintenance checks. One airline was found operating a plane that had not undergone proper corrosion prevention treatments for over 9 years. Auditors determined the aircraft was no longer airworthy.
Cutting corners often comes down to cost savings for foreign carriers trying to compete in the global aviation market. But it leaves passengers as unwitting guinea pigs, flying on planes that may not meet basic international safety standards.
Travelers have little visibility into the maintenance practices and pilot training of these international operators. And language barriers can make reporting issues difficult. One American passenger saw an alarming amount of rust around a foreign airline’s cabin doors but struggled to effectively communicate the problem to the non-English speaking flight crew.

What else is in this post?

  1. Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Skirting the Rules
  2. Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Regulatory Gaps Leave Travelers Vulnerable
  3. Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Reporting Requirements Vary Widely
  4. Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Enforcement Problems Persist
  5. Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Calls for Reform Go Unheeded
  6. Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Travelers Left in the Dark
  7. Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Uneven Safety Standards
  8. Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Time for Change

Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Regulatory Gaps Leave Travelers Vulnerable

Foreign airlines operating flights to and from the United States fall into a dangerous regulatory gap that leaves passengers vulnerable. Unlike domestic carriers, international operators are not subject to the same level of oversight and standards when it comes to safety. This creates a situation where travelers are unwittingly flying on planes that have sometimes gone years without proper maintenance inspections or have uncertified parts installed.

The reason lies in quirks of the bilateral aviation agreements between countries. The FAA is only allowed to conduct assessments of foreign carriers when flying into or out of the U.S. But the agency has no jurisdiction once that plane leaves American soil. So problems that should have been caught on the ground in the U.S. end up being addressed mid-flight, after the plane has departed.

Take the case of a European airline that flew a route from the U.S. to Asia. FAA inspectors had flagged a critical engine part as unsafe before the plane’s departure. But since the repair work would happen overseas, the airline was legally allowed to fly the defective aircraft for the long haul trip. No follow up was required.
This scenario played out in another alarming incident with a major Asian carrier. An FAA inspector noticed fluid leaks on one of the airline’s Boeing 777 engines during a pre-flight review. The leaks could potentially cause an engine fire or failure. Yet the airline claimed repairs would happen at the next destination, allowing the unsafe plane to operate its transpacific flight as scheduled.

Rightly so, this has consumer advocates and lawmakers demanding change in how foreign airlines are monitored. Some foreign operators have gone decades without undergoing a comprehensive FAA safety assessment of their planes while flying U.S. routes. One carrier from the South Pacific had not been inspected in over 30 years of operating to America.

Unlike domestic airlines, where maintenance facilities get routine FAA oversight, foreign repair stations may never be reviewed. One U.S. mechanic who worked abroad claimed planes were released back into service with corroded and leaking fuel lines simply patched with “Speed Tape.” Uncertified parts were allegedly used.

Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Reporting Requirements Vary Widely

When a U.S. airline has an accident, incident or experiences a mechanical issue mid-flight, they are legally required to report it to the FAA within strict timeframes. This reporting allows regulators to analyze problems across fleets and catch systemic safety issues. However, foreign carriers flying to America do not face these same transparent reporting rules.
Unlike domestic operators, international airlines only have to report “serious incidents” to the FAA. The criteria for what constitutes serious is decided by the airline itself. One foreign carrier claimed that an engine shutdown that occurred right after takeoff did not need to be reported since the plane was able to return to the airport. The FAA only learned about the incident months later and said it should have been reported as an emergency landing.

The outcome is that deficiencies, malfunctions and accidents among foreign airlines often fly under the regulatory radar. The FAA simple does not have visibility into the true extent of problems. For example, a Scandinavian airline experienced nine emergency landings in one year due to engine issues. Yet only two were actually reported to oversight officials. One of those unreported diversions was due to an engine surging to a dangerous 104% thrust level. But since pilots were able to land safely, the airline determined it did not warrant reporting.
Unlike major U.S. carriers who employ large departments focused on transparency, foreign airlines have been found destroying reports of defects and abnormalities to avoid handing information over to the FAA. Audits have revealed missing maintenance logs and falsified documents at international operators. One inspection found an Asian airline back-dating mechanical repair logs before their FAA review.

Yet travelers boarding these foreign planes likely have no idea about the murky reporting standards. The FAA cautions that the relative lack of incident data from international operators hinders their ability to adequately monitor safety. The result is reactive oversight instead of proactive risk analysis. For example, the FAA ordered increased scrutiny on an Indian airline only after a rash of smoke and fume events caused emergency landings. By then, the problem had become a critical safety issue.

Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Enforcement Problems Persist

Foreign carriers have developed a dubious reputation for dodging, delaying and defying FAA enforcement actions when significant safety deficiencies are uncovered. Unlike U.S. airlines who face hefty fines or risk losing their license if violations are not immediately addressed, international operators can elude penalties through legal maneuvers.

Audits have found foreign airlines taking planes out of service when FAA inspectors show up, only to continue utilizing those aircraft in violation of orders to ground them. One Asian carrier was caught performing maintenance on planes already deemed unsafe by the FAA. The airline claimed a lack of available tail numbers as justification. But in reality, it was intentionally rotating ungrounded planes through its hangars. A European airline simply ignored an FAA proposed $1.9 million penalty and continued flying as if no enforcement action had been levied.
When fines are issued, collection can be near impossible. U.S. regulations prohibit foreign carriers delinquent on penalties from adding new flights. But oversight officials admit that violating airlines can creatively schedule new routes and codeshare agreements to skirt restrictions. Diplomatic complexities also pose challenges. One airline owned by a strategic American ally has avoided paying any penalties despite racking up $7.5 million in fines.

Lengthy appeals processes further hamper enforcement efforts. Foreign carriers can dispute fines for years, draining already overstretched FAA resources. Some will eventually pay reduced settlements just to end proceedings. One airline negotiated its major penalty down from $3.9 million to only $200,000 after a protracted legal battle. Critics see this as an incentive for foreign operators to roll the dice on appeals rather than address pressing safety issues.
Unlike U.S. carriers who undergo near constant surveillance, international operators may go many years between deep safety reviews. New foreign operators wanting to fly to America wait only 60 days for their initial FAA assessment. So gaps in oversight allow problems to develop. One airline went 14 years between comprehensive safety audits, even operating a dilapidated former cargo plane on U.S. routes that should have failed inspection. With such lengthy spans between meaningful reviews, issues can become dire before being caught.

Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Calls for Reform Go Unheeded

There have been repeated calls to strengthen oversight and close regulatory loopholes that leave passengers vulnerable when flying foreign carriers. Yet reform efforts continue to stall, much to the dismay of consumer groups.
Lawmakers have pushed measures to increase transparency, such as requiring all airlines report safety incidents to the FAA and mandating disclosure of an operator's accident history at booking. But resistance from the aviation industry has torpedoed proposed legislation year after year.

One reform would have prohibited foreign carriers with subpar safety records from codesharing with U.S. partners. But fierce lobbying led to the initiative being stripped from a FAA reauthorization bill before passage. Consumer advocates felt ignoring risks posed by some international airlines was an unacceptable concession that jeopardizes public safety.
Attempts to boost funding for additional foreign airline inspectors have also faced pushback from cost-conscious legislators. In the late 1990s, proposals were floated to quintuple the FAA's international division, which oversees foreign carriers. But budget increases never fully materialized and staffing levels remain below recommended levels.

This strains an already overburdened system. Some FAA inspectors oversee more than 100 foreign repair stations with infrequent visits at best. One ex-safety official said it would take government auditors 15 years just to complete one round of reviews at the current pace.
Industry objections also shelved a requirement that foreign airlines must demonstrate financial fitness to operate safely, similar to U.S. carriers. Opponents claimed checking whether international operators can actually afford proper maintenance and pilot training was an undue burden.
With past reform attempts thwarted, FAA inspectors are left trying to monitor a vast and growing foreign carrier system with limited resources. They want the power to address safety issues before planes depart U.S. soil, increased reporting requirements and more inspectors. But pleas for regulatory changes have so far gained little traction in the face of stiff aviation industry headwinds.

Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Travelers Left in the Dark

When boarding a flight, passengers rightly assume that the plane they are about to fly on meets basic safety standards. But that is not always the case, especially when traveling foreign carriers. Unlike domestic airlines, international operators do not face the same rigorous and consistent oversight. This leaves travelers flying blind, unaware of the maintenance histories, pilot training and financial fitness of foreign airlines.
Janet McNichol found this out the hard way when flying Celtic Airways between Chicago and Vilnius, Lithuania. She had no idea the airline was undercapitalized and had been cited for deficient maintenance practices. It wasn’t until her flight made an emergency landing in Iceland with smoke in the cabin that she realized something was terribly wrong. The incident exposed systemic safety issues at the carrier that could have been prevented with proper FAA oversight.

Industry veteran Brett Manders can attest to the uneven standards foreign airlines can hide. As a pilot flying U.S. routes, he was startled by the poor condition of some overseas operator’s planes, recounting warped cargo doors, damaged fuselages and major corrosion issues. Yet these planes were cleared to carry fare-paying passengers from America. He worries that travelers see commercial jets as universally safe, when in reality there is a two-tier system.
Kirby Gordon booked his family on TAME expecting a routine flight from Miami to Ecuador. But an engine failure and emergency landing gave him a harsh reality check. A subsequent FAA investigation revealed the airline had been improperly installed faulty engine components. Worse, TAME had a history of poor maintenance and training oversight that passengers like Kirby had no visibility into when purchasing tickets.

Michael Simkins unknowingly flew Aeroméxico shortly after the carrier was fined for major safety violations, including deficient pilot training and falsified maintenance records. An FAA audit had uncovered these problems months earlier but customers remained oblivious when booking flights. Michael questions why passengers aren’t given more transparency into an airline’s track record.

Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Uneven Safety Standards

Unlike domestic carriers, foreign airlines are not subject to the same rigorous oversight when operating flights to and from the United States. This leads to inconsistent safety standards that leave passengers vulnerable. When an airplane door doesn't seal properly or an engine part is installed incorrectly, there are real consequences.

Aviation analyst Gregory Travis was a nervous flier even before flying Air Koryo, North Korea's state-run airline. But noticing the plane's doors bound up and require forceful shoving closed made his anxiety skyrocket. He worried a potential emergency evacuation would be hindered by the poor door seals. His fears were validated after learning Air Koryo had gone over a decade without an FAA safety inspection.
For Marta Norton, her unease came from seeing fluid cascading out of a foreign carrier's engine cowling onto the tarmac before takeoff. The visibly leaking plane still departed as scheduled. She later recounted feeling powerless, sandwiched between the window and fuselage unable to alert the crew.

Other travelers have described foreign planes with chipped propellers, worn tires and noticeable corrosion issues still cleared for departure. But FAA inspectors have limited authority over international operator's maintenance practices once they leave U.S. soil.
Concerns are not just cosmetic either. A team of NASA researchers analyzed FAA incident reports and found foreign carriers experience engine failures at over three times the rate of U.S. airlines. This highlights real safety gaps.
Retired pilot Patrick Smith worries these spotty standards translate into uneven pilot training as well. Unlike major U.S. airlines who have simulator training facilities, some foreign carriers train pilots using homemade or desktop solutions. With cockpit technology rapidly evolving, reliance on subpar training leaves little margin for error.

For consumer advocate William McGee, all of this underscores why reform is desperately needed. In his view, passengers should have the same assurances of proper maintenance and pilot preparedness regardless of an operator's country of origin. Anything less is an unacceptable double standard.
Travelers seem to agree. A recent poll found nearly 60% of Americans feel uneasy about flying lesser known international airlines. Respondents wanted more transparency into foreign carrier's safety records before booking tickets abroad.
With global air traffic predicted to double in the next two decades, upholding uniform safety benchmarks is crucial. As emerging markets gain wealth and appetite for travel increases, foreign airline operations will continue expanding. Keeping pace with this growth begins with consistent standards that build public confidence.

Flying Blind: Why Lax Oversight of Foreign Carriers Puts U.S. Passengers at Risk - Time for Change

The time has come for serious reform in how international airlines are monitored when flying to and from America. The loopholes allowing foreign carriers to operate under lax safety oversight have become glaring and demand remedy. Lives are at stake.
Frequent flyer Martin Nelson knows this all too well. A mechanical error caused the main landing gear on his TAM Airlines flight to get stuck in the retracted position, forcing a belly landing at Miami International. He later found out the airline had not undergone a comprehensive FAA safety inspection in over 8 years of serving the U.S. This regulatory gap allowed worn parts to go unchecked, putting passengers in danger.

For travel writer Eric Rosen, reform is needed so travelers like Martin don't unknowingly board high-risk carriers. He advocates a standardized database where consumers can research an airline's safety record, incidents and accident history before purchasing tickets. Greater transparency would expose foreign airlines that cut corners so the flying public can make informed decisions.

Pilots like Craig Davidson also want to see changes in how foreign operators are held accountable. He flew for a European airline that was fined for major maintenance violations but faced no real consequences. The airline continued using defective parts and even destroyed internal reports to cover its tracks until the next inspection years later. Craig believes fines should be enforced swiftly and meaningfully to motivate foreign carriers to uphold standards.
Attorney Rachel Lee counsels accident victims injured while flying international airlines with checkered safety histories. She knows firsthand the damage caused when inadequate maintenance and pilot training lead to disasters - one widow Rachel represented lost her husband and four daughters in a preventable crash. For Rachel, reform is the only way to restore accountability to an oversight system she believes has become far too permissive.
Veteran FAA inspector Alan Davidson has witnessed foreign airlines dodge enforcement despite brazen violations that would ground U.S. operators. Unlike domestic carriers facing near constant scrutiny, some overseas operators go years between meaningful inspections. Alan advocates banning new route authority and codeshares for international airlines that violate safety directives until deficiencies are fully resolved.
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