The Red Tail – Globalization in the Aircraft Mechanic Industry

The documentary film “The Red Tail” was produced in 2009.  It reveals the impact of  globalization and outsourcing on some Northwest Airlines (NWA)  aircraft mechanics.  In 2005, Roy Koch, along with 4,400 airline mechanics, custodians, and cleaners, went on strike against Northwest Airlines, then the fourth largest airline in the world. Northwest, otherwise known as “The Red Tail” by its employees, wanted to lay off 53% of their union and outsource their jobs. What ensued was a 444-day strike that would end with 4,000 union members out of work, including Roy. The film effectively documents the loss of employment of many unionized NWA aircraft mechanics, and follows the work, as it became outsourced to aircraft mechanics in Hong Kong. The documentary has widespread implications for the entire aircraft mechanic industry, and reveals just how slippery a slope the globalization of labor has become.  Here is the official trailer for The Red Tail.

You can follow the movie producers and keep up with current news at their Facebook page,

The aviation maintenance industry is only one of many industries impacted by outsourcing and globalization. In Massachusetts, in the 1970′s and 1980′s,  I saw a similar trend develop in a remarkably similar way to the overseas outsourcing of aircraft mechanic labor.  There, a thriving shoe manufacturing industry was entirely wiped out by a migration  to lower cost Southern U.S.  shoe manufacturers.  These same U.S. manufacturers  were in turn wiped out when  lower cost shoe manufacturers were found in the Asia-Pacific region. The entire globalization phenomenon has already had a profound impact on the working class in America,  and has been documented in several recent books, most notably Arianna Huffington‘s  2010 book, “Third World America.”

Arianna Huffington

Third World America

Cover by Amazon

Third World America and The Red Tail

In her book,  Arianna Huffington  only hints that advancing technology is the primary driving force behind the rising inequality of income.  I go a step further and lay the blame at the feet of technology advances. If technology (along with globalization) is a major culprit in the erosion of the aircraft mechanic labor market , then it tells us something about the future in this industry:  labor conditions are very likely to get even worse. We’re certain to see more advanced automation and also new technology that makes it even easier for companies to offshore work. This will lead to a further “hollowing out” of the middle class. The basic reality is that technology and globalization are making the value of aircraft mechanic labor worth much less and giving workers less bargaining power against management. Also, these technology trends are impacting other areas of industry as well.  For example,  some hospitals are outsourcing the analysis of breast exams to low-cost, third world country radiologists, by digitizing the radiography pictures, and using the Internet.

The entire documentary “The Red Tail,”  can be seen at  It lasts 86 minutes and is well worth watching. The DVD is also available for sale at the official movie web site

Mentioned in the movie is the  Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Organization, or AMFA.  AMFA is the aircraft mechanics union of choice.  As the movie shows, all 4,000 striking mechanics in the Twin Cities lost their jobs as a result of the 444 day strike against NWA.  Not so surprisingly, attempts to unionize the Hong Kong aircraft mechanic workers also were beaten back, as wage concessions also occurred there year after year.

American Airlines Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and “The Red Tail” with NWA – Similar Trajectories? The Red Tail

I am prompted to write this post because of the recent news of the impending Chapter 11 bankruptcy of American Airlines. It is common knowledge in the industry that American Airlines is one of the last bastions of aircraft mechanic union strength, and does not outsource as much work overseas as the other major carriers.  The bankruptcy filing mirrors the legal actions undertaken by NWA before it also undercut unionized aircraft mechanic strength, as documented in “The Red Tail.”

Implications for the Aircraft Mechanic Labor Market

What are the implications of this globalization and outsourcing trend for aircraft mechanics and recent graduates of aircraft mechanic schools ? As in other industries, closely scrutinize what work is capable of being outsourced, and what work is not.  Employers don’t necessarily have to outsource work overseas  to lower labor costs. Instead, many MRO‘s import cheap foreign workers using H1-B visas, and house them in America.  If I was a prospective A&P licensee about to embark on a promising career, I would think long and hard about just how long a specialty such as avionics or unmanned drone maintenance would enjoy any good niche status, and what the payback would specifically be for any layout of money for specialized training. Also, I would question the wisdom of establishing a long-term career with any airline carrier.

As mentioned in “The Red Tail,” one way to put an end to this unending string of assaults on mechanics labor is the formation of a global aircraft mechanics union.

by Steve Adams




3 Responses to “The Red Tail – Globalization in the Aircraft Mechanic Industry”

  1. Austin Alers Says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks Austin,

    I appreciate your interest.

    Steve Adams

  3. sylwesterw lublinie Says:

    superb post.Never knew this, regards for letting me know.