Drug and Alcohol Testing Expands

The FAA has elected to include others down the chain in the drug and alcohol testing program requirements. The FAA finally decided that a vast group of workers who were performing safety-sensitive jobs are not included in any testing program. It decided...


Most of us in the aviation business don’t pay much attention to the arcane rules that come out of the FAA hopper. Recently this one slipped out and will have far-reaching effects on those in the maintenance business far on down the chain of contractors and subcontractors.

Safety-Sensitive Employment

As we all know by now the FAA in 1989 was charged with laying out regulations to establish drug and alcohol testing of employees performing “safety-sensitive” work for air carriers and others in the industry who come in contact with air carrier aircraft. Even I, as a director of safety for an airline, was included in the testing “pool”. The testing rules extended from regulated entities like air carriers and repair stations to certain contractors who performed work for the regulated business. Under the law the outside contractors who performed by contract for the carrier or repair station have to participate in a drug and alcohol testing program if they are performing a “safety-sensitive” job. However, now at this late date the FAA has elected to include others down the chain in the program. The FAA finally decided that a vast group of workers who were performing safety-sensitive jobs are not included in any testing program. It decided to include these people by adding language that would cover all persons performing a “safety-sensitive function in the maintenance field.

Guidance By FAA

When FAA decides to explain and “guide” regulated entities and persons they publish what is called “guidance” to elaborate and attempt to explain the scope of their regulations to the people concerned. Since 1989 when first put in place, the testing requirements seemed to be in conflict regarding who exactly in the maintenance chain was covered. Some were included some were not depending on who and where you were located and who was enforcing the regulation. Sound familiar?

The guidance generally excluded those activities that did not take “airworthiness responsibility” another catch-22 phrase that troubled many to explain. The problem was that nobody could agree on just who and what was airworthiness responsibility. Further confusion reigned in the matter of the relationship between airworthiness responsibility and how it related to a safety-sensitive function. This has gone on since 1989 and finally came to a head recently with the growth of “outsourcing” large amounts of routine aircraft and engine maintenance.

The FAA found that airlines were on average outsourcing 53 percent of their maintenance work and that was an increase of 36 percent since 1996. Other outsourcing efforts have been made in the front line employee area as well. You can clearly see where your jobs are going. Both domestic and overseas maintenance facilities are getting more work now. Some maintenance organizations here at home have tried to limit outsourcing by their employers but there has been little success in this effort. I would not be surprised to see the lion’s share of outsourced work soon going to foreign facilities. It’s definitely up. (United to China for heavy checks and Jet Blue to South America for inspections and repairs, for example, among others). It’s all about money, no matter what they say!

We have today what is called the virtual airline in some cases. This is where there are aircraft and owners but little else in the way of infrastructure to call an airline. Most if not all traditional employee-related work can be outsourced, usually for less money. Flight crews included. Many suggest that there should be certification restrictions on these types of operations, but the pendulum is swinging fast and nobody in power is concerned enough to put the brakes on it.

The FAA’s basic purpose in expanding drug and alcohol testing in the maintenance field is to provide testing for all persons performing safety-sensitive work. It became clear to them, finally, that safety-sensitive work could legally be performed by those without airworthiness responsibility, so this could no longer be a yardstick for a testing requirement. It had to be changed.

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