What's It All About?

Domestic vs. foreign repair station controversy

It’s not exactly the fog of war, but there is certainly a heavy mist surrounding the issues raised by recently proposed legislation that would impose on FAA-certificated foreign repair stations some of the same safety and security requirements already imposed on domestic repair stations. Varying forms of the legislation are winding their way through Congress as I write. In the meanwhile, factions pro (labor unions and passenger safety advocates) and con (mostly large repair stations with foreign operations) are filling the aviation air waves with dueling newsletters and emails to their constituencies. The result is a fair amount of confusion.

Since legislation was first proposed, I’ve received numerous calls and emails from people asking for clarification. Many were quite well-versed in the issues, but many had some very basic questions regarding certification of foreign vs. domestic repair stations and the differences in government requirements. This article is intended for those who need a primer on the subject, essentially a regulatory review of the primary differences in requirements that are the subject of the varying legislative initiatives.

As all of you know, the FAA certificates repair stations under Part 145 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Repair stations that operate within the United States are called domestic repair stations and those that operate abroad are called foreign repair stations. It’s important to remember that the issues involved here apply to repair stations certificated by the FAA and not to truly “foreign” repair stations. In brief, there are three significant regulatory requirements that apply to domestic repair stations performing work on air carrier aircraft and not to FAA-certificated foreign repair stations performing that same work:

  1. Drug testing,
  2. Alcohol testing, and
  3. Background checks.

While other differences also exist, they are not currently the subject of legislative initiatives.

Drug testing
For almost two decades, transportation workers who perform safety-sensitive functions have been subject to drug testing, the purpose of course being to help prevent accidents caused by the use of prohibited drugs by employees. The drug testing rules applicable to repair station employees working on air carrier aircraft are actually contained in Appendix I to Part 121. These rules define safety-sensitive employees to include those employees who perform aircraft maintenance or preventive maintenance duties. These aircraft maintenance workers are subject to pre-employment, random, reasonable suspicion and post-accident drug testing.

While safety-sensitive, domestic repair station employees are covered by these drug testing rules, the same employees at foreign repair stations are not. Specifically, the rule states “no part of the testing process (including specimen collection …) shall be conducted outside the territory of the United States.” In addition, while domestic employees performing safety-sensitive functions for a repair station by contract are subject to the same drug-testing rules as safety-sensitive domestic employees, foreign contractors are not. Specifically, “the provisions of this appendix shall not apply to any person who performs a [safety-sensitive] function by contract for an employer outside the territory of the United States.” [Emphasis added.]

This means that maintenance performed on air carrier aircraft by domestic repair stations is performed by employees subject to drug testing requirements, whereas the same work performed by FAA-certificated foreign repair stations is not. (While rare, it should be noted that if a domestic repair station performed maintenance work outside the United States — either directly or by contract — those workers would also not be subject to drug testing.)

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