What's It All About?

Last month I wrote about the controversy surrounding regulatory standards for FAA-certificated domestic repairs stations as compared to foreign repair stations. (And just a reminder — we are dealing only with those foreign repair stations that hold FAA certificates, not purely foreign repair stations.) The review was intended as a primer on the regulatory issues raised by proposed legislation for those who are well aware of the controversy but less attuned to the reasons for it. I wrote about the different standards for alcohol testing, drug testing, and background checks. These are the issues that have raised the greatest controversy from a regulatory standpoint.

In the same vein, this month I am writing about legislative proposals that would affect regulatory oversight by the FAA of repair stations it certificates abroad. As before, this review is intended for those with a keen interest in the subject but less familiarity with the details of the surveillance or oversight issues.

What is regulatory oversight?
First of all, it’s important to understand what is meant by the term “regulatory oversight.” Basically, it’s the FAA’s review of an entity’s (in this case, certificated repair stations) compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations, and its own manuals and procedures. Oversight — called interchangeably, surveillance — by FAA inspectors helps ensure that repair stations continue to meet the safety standards that they were required to meet when they received their certificates. It is crucial to aviation safety that the FAA have an effective system of oversight — or surveillance — so that problems at a repair station can be found and corrected or other appropriate action taken. Let’s face it, the time and cost of FAR compliance, coupled with the pressures of moving maintenance work quickly and cheaply, make cutting corners an attractive alternative that effective oversight can help foil.

What are the differences between FAA oversight of domestic vs. foreign repair stations?
Once certificated, domestic repair station certificates are valid indefinitely. On the other hand, foreign repair station certificates are valid for only one to two years. This means that annually or bi-annually, foreign repair stations must be re-approved to hold FAA certificates. In addition, while domestic repair stations do not pay for the FAA’s costs of certificating them, foreign repair stations pay the FAA’s costs for initial certification and each “renewal.” (Although, it should be noted that many foreign repair stations are subsidized by their national governments.)

While foreign repair stations undergo re-certification at regular intervals, many argue that they are not subject to the same level of routine safety oversight by the FAA. For one thing, there are approximately 700 foreign repair stations spread out across the globe and less than 100 FAA inspectors responsible for their oversight. For another, by international agreement, Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreements (BASA), with certain countries, the FAA has handed over regulatory oversight to local aviation authorities. Concerned about the safety implications of having no FAA inspectors review a foreign repair station’s compliance posture, the House and Senate have both proposed legislation to mandate FAA inspections.

What are the legislative proposals?
The House version of the legislation, which was recently passed, requires at least two annual FAA inspections of all FAA-certificated foreign repair stations. The Senate version, which was recently introduced, would require at least two FAA-inspections per year and require at least one to be an “unannounced” inspection. However, the Senate bill would provide an exemption for countries with which the United States had entered into a BASA.

The next step is for the Senate to vote on the legislation and, if the legislation remains different from the House version, for the differences to be resolved by conference committee. Ultimately, any bill would have to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President before becoming law.

Much of the controversy surrounds the European Commission’s (EC’s) objection to the FAA inspections as violating the BASA between the United States and the EC. The EC’s aviation authority, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), has threatened to retaliate against U.S. repair stations that hold EASA certifications. A number of aviation alphabet groups are lobbying hard in opposition to these bills. At the same time, labor organizations and safety advocates are lobbying in their favor.

I believe the U.S. Senate version is the proper course of action that we should follow. The regulatory oversight by EASA is certainly up to the challenge of ensuring the safety standards. We must not forget that a considerable amount of aircraft maintenance is accomplished in countries that do not have a BASA agreement with the United States. So this puts a burden on the FAA to check the air carriers’ internal oversight process to ensure that it is adequate to maintain control for the maintenance accomplished by these repair stations.

John Goglia has 30 years experience in the aviation industry. He was the first NTSB board member to hold an FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate. Currently he is senior vice president for aviation operations and safety programs for consulting firm JDA Aviation Technology Solutions.