WASHINGTON -- When he was head of security at Northwest Airlines in the 1990s, Douglas Laird worried about aviation workers smuggling drugs into the USA by stashing them inside airplane doors, behind wall panels and underneath bathroom sinks.
The contraband was typically planted while an airplane was in an overseas repair shop for overnight or long-term work, Laird said.
Now as an aviation-security consultant, Laird has a bigger fear: that a terrorist will enter an overseas repair shop, plant a bomb in an airplane cavity and use a cellphone to trigger it.
"If you have unimpeded access to an aircraft for a period of time, you can take things apart, hide something and put it back together," Laird said.
Although airlines check airplanes when they return from repair shops, Laird said, "An inspection would never be able to find something you planted."
Laird's fear is echoed by some lawmakers and investigators, whose concern grows as airlines have more planes repaired overseas. The number of overseas repair shops licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration has grown from 344 in 1994 to nearly 700, according to Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel. Those shops "are not subject to U.S. security requirements," Scovel said in a June report. Each country sets its own security standards.
"For the most part, overseas there's no meaningful background checks conducted and in some cases, none whatsoever," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "Having unknown persons working at repair stations is a big problem."
More than 85% of the foreign repair stations are in Europe and Asia. Britain has the most with 161 followed by France (101), Germany (53) and Singapore (48).
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said a classified report by Scovel revealed gaps in fences around some overseas repair shops and inadequate control over who can get inside. "There is no perimeter security," McCaskill said. "You've got people coming in to work on the vending machines, and no one is paying attention to them."
Aviation officials acknowledge potential security problems for overseas repair shops but say they are generally as safe as the 4,227 U.S. shops licensed by the FAA. The push for tighter oversight of foreign repair shops has come from unions that have lost thousands of jobs as airlines have moved work overseas, said Marshall Filler, managing director of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association, a trade group for U.S. and overseas repair shops.
"I don't think there's a (security) threat that's been demonstrated" by overseas shops, Filler said. Most countries' security rules require background checks for repair workers and tight control of who can get into an airplane.
But, Filler said, "some smaller countries may not be as good in their oversight as larger countries."
Airlines carefully scrutinize repair shops and their work, former Delta Air Lines maintenance chief Ray Valeika said. "An airline has incredible interest in making sure they have good maintenance," Valeika said. "You're not going to send work to somebody who will risk your own reputation."
Some lawmakers worry about repair shops located off of airport property, where Laird said security can be looser. Shops at airports typically check workers' backgrounds and require them to have ID cards to get into secure areas.
Michael Romanowski, a vice president for the Aerospace Industries Association, said repairs done away from airports are usually on components such as engines. Those are extensively tested before being reinstalled. "For most repair activity, we do not believe there's a significant security risk," he said. "The place where there's really a potential for security risk is when you have a full aircraft in heavy maintenance. That's a small amount of the maintenance that's done."
Airlines use more overseas repair shops as they close their own repair facilities, partly to cut costs. Scovel, the inspector general, reported in 2003 that airline repair workers earn up to $83 an hour, while overseas repair workers get as little as $40 an hour.
A law enacted in August bars new foreign repair shops from being licensed if the Transportation Security Administration doesn't inspect each existing shop by February 2009.
"Our focus has been to try to level the playing field," said Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department. "The outsourcing of maintenance overseas without a safety regime is a threat."