The Federal Aviation Administration has not done enough to tighten safety rules for the growing volume of airplane maintenance that airlines are outsourcing to contractors, the Department of Transportation's internal watchdog told Congress Thursday.
DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel said the current FAA program that asks airlines to voluntarily report where they outsource key maintenance doesn't work because not all airlines comply. The FAA's voluntary process for airlines to report their top 10 "critical maintenance" providers has produced reports from only seven of nine carriers, Scovel said. They were due Dec. 31.
He said the FAA cannot adequately oversee the quality of maintenance because it has no way of knowing where all the work is done.
Critics and defenders of the FAA's maintenance oversight testified before the House aviation subcommittee.
Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, defended the agency's oversight of an industry that he said has become "incredibly complex." Terrorism and high fuel prices forced airlines to slash costs to survive, pushing them to seek a wider variety of contractors to maintain their fleets.
He called Scovel's proposed oversight reforms unrealistic, saying they "would essentially require that I have inspectors at the turning of every wrench."
Sabatini and Basil Barimo, a safety official of airline trade group Air Transport Association, argued the airlines' safety record shows the current system works.
The last U.S. plane crash blamed on maintenance occurred in January 2003 in Charlotte. An unlicensed maintenance contractor improperly adjusted a flight control on an Air Midwest aircraft being flown for US Airways Express. The plane crashed on takeoff the next day, killing all 21 aboard.
Outsourcing has increased briskly since 2001. As of last year, nine large U.S. airlines were outsourcing 67% of their heavy airframe maintenance, up from 34% in 2003, Scovel said.
Mechanics at maintenance contractors tend to be non-union and earn less than airline mechanics. Airlines are outsourcing work to firms in the USA as well as Mexico, Central America, Africa, Asia and other locations with lower pay scales than the USA.
Employees at foreign repair contractors are not required to undergo the drug tests or background checks that are required at U.S. firms.
Flexing their political muscle as the new majority party, Democrats on the panel sharply criticized the system that treats licensed repair firms in the USA differently from those abroad, many of which are unknown to the FAA.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the FAA's oversight a "parallel system" of safety that puts airline passengers at risk.
Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., said he wants the FAA to require airlines to have safety-related work done only by the airlines or by repair firms that are FAA licensed. Costello and Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., said they want the FAA to hire more maintenance inspectors.