FAA in the dark on maintenance

Non-certified repair facilities are performing important maintenance work on airplanes without FAA oversight

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Critical airline maintenance is being performed by private companies without proper oversight and frequently without certification by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to a series of government reports. A December 2005 audit by the inspector general (IG) at the Department of Transportation (DOT), FAA’s parent agency, found that “non-certificated” repair facilities, assigned work by the airlines, "are now performing more significant work than anyone realized” — a practice which contributed to a January 2003 Air Midwest crash that claimed 21 lives outside Charlotte, North Carolina. The IG audit found that these facilities did not follow the same regulatory requirements as their certified counterparts, including annual FAA inspections and quality control supervision. And even when FAA-certified mechanics performed maintenance at these sites, vital overlapping layers of safety were absent — a factor the National Transportation Safety Board said contributed to the Air Midwest crash. Airlines failed to properly monitor work at these facilities and neglected to properly train employees, according to the audit. While the FAA agreed with most of the IG’s recommendations, effective policies haven’t always been adopted. In March 2007, the IG told Congress that the FAA still needed to develop a method for determining which “non-certificated” facilities were performing critical maintenance. Meanwhile, airlines have doubled their outsourced maintenance from 2004 to 2008. "We have made a number of adjustments that I think have improved the effectiveness of our oversight," a senior DOT official told Congress in 2007. An FAA spokesman noted the agency's responses to IG recommendations, including proposed new regulatory language for contract maintenance programs in air carrier manuals, as well as a proposed rulemaking project requiring FAA approval for contract training programs. Both proposals are scheduled for completion by the end of 2009.

Follow-up:
Senators Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, and Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, have twice attempted unsuccessfully to pass legislation bolstering oversight of both domestic and foreign maintenance facilities. In 2008, the FAA issued a change to its Operations Specification guide requiring carriers to list all of the certified and uncertified repair stations they employ, but canceled it after the airline industry expressed concerns. A DOT spokeswoman said recommendations to the FAA from its 2005 audit remain “open.” And while a September 2008 audit highlighted FAA plans to demand airlines provide additional information on private maintenance facilities, DOT expressed concern that the information would not be accurate and complete.

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