Lawmakers and watchdogs are ringing the alarm on domestic carriers' use of foreign repair stations for aircraft maintenance and repairs. A U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General report released last month said airlines increasingly are outsourcing aircraft maintenance, and gaps remain in Federal Aviation Administration supervision of some repair stations that they use.
"We have emphasized that the issue is not where maintenance is performed, but that maintenance requires effective oversight," DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel III said in the report.
Based on a review of 19 U.S.-based carriers' maintenance vendor lists, the Inspector General found that all the carriers have used repair stations that have not been certified by FAA. "We identified over 1,400 non-certificated repair facilities performing maintenance, and more than 100 of these facilities were located in foreign countries," the Inspector General's report noted. "FAA's efforts to improve its oversight in this area are still underway."
While Federal Aviation Administration-certified repair stations require annual FAA inspections, reports on failures and malfunction, designated supervisors and inspectors, as well as training programs, noncertified facilities have no such requirements. However, they still perform critical repairs and maintenance on U.S.-based carriers' aircraft, according to the report.
"Despite the differences in quality controls and oversight that exist between certificated and non-certificated maintenance facilities, there are no limitations on the scope of work that non-certificated repair facilities can perform," the DOT Inspector General report said.
The report said even foreign-based repair stations that are certified by the FAA are not required to have drug and alcohol testing programs, to employ FAA-certified personnel and are not subject to U.S. security requirements—unlike repair stations based in the United States. The number of FAA-certified foreign repair stations grew from 344 in 1994 to 698 in 2007, the report states. The Inspector General, however, said neither FAA nor DOT "maintain information on how much maintenance air carriers outsource to foreign facilities," where costs often are less than those in the United States.
"Clearly, there are two different standards in terms of repair stations," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said during a Senate subcommittee hearing last month. "You have the standard that is here at certified repair stations in the United States of America, where you have spot inspections, certified mechanics and oversight by the FAA. And then you have a whole lot of foreign repair stations where you don't have that same level of scrutiny and that same level of oversight."
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate version of the FAA reauthorization bill have placed language that would further regulate foreign-based aircraft repairs. Among the proposals are twice-yearly inspections of foreign repair stations. A proponent of regular inspections, McCaskill suggested all foreign repair stations be fully certified by the United States.
The Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, set to be enacted beginning in 2008, first must be approved by the full House and ultimately be reconciled with legislation approved in May by the Senate Transportation Committee (BTN, July 9).
Business Travel Coalition chairman Kevin Mitchell suggested that "heavy maintenance on U.S. airlines' aircraft shall be performed in the U.S.," until bilateral agreements allow FAA to inspect foreign repair facilities unannounced, while also increasing the depth and frequency of inspections. Meanwhile, Mitchell said airlines should "contractually require repair facilities to perform background checks in accordance with standards established by TSA," noting reports that "terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, operate freely in many of these countries." McCaskill said in one case, "a member of al Qaeda was found working at a repair station in Singapore."
Others, however, claim the alarms on foreign repair threatening safety are isolated and overblown. Air Transport Association vice president of operations and safety Basil Barimo said, "With respect to the long-standing practice in the airline industry to use the expertise of regulated contractors to perform maintenance services, the data quite clearly do not tell us that safety suffers."
Citing National Transportation Safety Board figures, Barimo said there were fewer accidents in 2006 than in 2005 "for all segments of civil aviation."
However, Barimo noted that two fatal accidents in 2006 "claimed 50 lives," yielding an accident rate of 0.18 per 1,000,000 departures—"down 30 percent from 2005. For comparison, the average rate for the period of 2002 to 2006 was 0.36, and the five years prior to that saw a rate of 0.45 accidents per 1,000,000 departures. The trend continues in 2007 and, without question scheduled air service is incredibly safe, getting safer and maintenance certainly plays a role in that remarkable achievement."
The DOT Inspector General report noted that "multiple layers of controls in air carrier operations and maintenance processes, along with FAA's oversight, are largely responsible for the high level of safety that we have seen in the last five years." The report added that "some foreign countries may have their own mechanic licensing requirements that are just as stringent as those required of FAA-certificated mechanics."