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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Thank Congress

By Howie Fuller

A recent article in AM (See Congress: Enough is Enough, July 2009) details a clash between the U.S. and the European Union over the pending FAA Reauthorization Bill. Among other issues, one sticking point appears to be the provision in the reauthorization bill to require drug and alcohol testing at foreign FAA-certificated repair facilities.

According to Sarah MacLeod, executive director of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), "It is an issue of sovereignty. If passed, the legislation could force foreign repair stations to surrender their certificate(s) because their country does not allow its citizens to be randomly tested for drug and alcohol use. If the U.S. air carriers cannot obtain maintenance services from certified parties, they would have to fly mechanics on every flight to ensure routine maintenance during overseas (service)."

I truly admire Sarah MacLeod in her almost single-handed efforts to build ARSA from the ground up. Her efforts are truly inspirational and serve as a shining beacon for all in aviation.

That being said, however, I disagree with her analysis that every U.S. airline will have to routinely carry mechanics on board foreign-bound flights. In the recent past, international airlines have all had their own employees acting as maintenance representatives at foreign destinations. I have known many of these individuals, all of whom were at the top of their game and were experts on their aircraft.

The drug and alcohol testing requirements of the FARs make provision for foreign-based employees. Routine inspections were almost invariably accomplished at a home facility, not overseas. This is, therefore, a non-issue.

As for foreign maintenance facilities returning their FAA certificates as a result of this reauthorization, forgive my crocodile tears. Having U.S. air carrier heavy maintenance actually performed in the states? Imagine having A&P mechanics with steady work and a living income! What a horrifying prospect! In the recent past, FAA, pushed by its parent Department of Transportation, at the intense urging of the Department of State, has acted with complete indifference to the plight of our domestic aviation maintenance industry and enacted blatantly inequitable bilateral agreements wherein the State Department wins and we lose. It’s high time that Congress redressed the situation.

I’ve railed in the past about the unfair advantages enjoyed by foreign facilities with FAA Certified Repair Station (CRS) status. Substandard facilities are not the issue. Training of personnel, adequate quality assurance and wage scales are much more of a concern and these are precisely what drives U.S. air carriers to foreign shores. Today, the bottom line is the bottom line. It’s the bean counters who decide where an aircraft goes for heavy maintenance and to them, safety is the number two consideration.

More important to me is the fact that Congress has carried forward on the bi-annual FAA inspection of foreign FAA repair stations. This provision will have a positive effect on air carrier safety. The lack of this inspection requirement is a clear danger for aviation safety that should never have been let slide in the first place.

U.S. air carriers are still opposed for the most part to the provisions of this bill. They say that having their heavy maintenance performed in-country will make them uncompetitive. This begs the question of with whom? Foreign airlines don’t compete with them domestically. They’ll have a completely level playing field here.

Internationally, there is a clear preference among the travelling public to fly on U.S. carriers. Perhaps if they’d compete on the service level, they’d find their load factors would be comparable, even if their fares were slightly higher. Free booze in coach? No thanks, we’d rather skimp on our maintenance.

I’m convinced that it is letters and e-mails to Congress that caused both of the above provisions to remain in the FAA reauthorization bill to this point. I asked before for readers to contact their senators and representatives regarding their votes, and now ask you to contact them and thank them for supporting the American aviation maintenance industry. Let them know that you support their efforts. They already know the power of voters and their friends. Letter-writers carry a lot of weight in Washington, DC. There’s a congressional truism that one constituent letter is worth 500 votes. Even if you don’t believe it, they do.

If Congress caves in to the ATA and EU, we can expect to see many more job losses in the aviation maintenance ranks, as we see the level playing field further tilt to the offshore position.

Please, even if you’ve sent a message before on the same subject, go to www.congress.org, find the email addresses of local senators and congressional representatives, then send each of them a message of support for the FAA Reauthorization Act as presently written.

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