In our repair station outlook we refer to a "dynamic" market facing changes and challenges. What we don't mention is the controversy the repair station industry currently faces.
In the United States that controversy surfaced in the form of critical report that the Department of Transportation's inspector general issued in July 2003. It accused FAA of not doing enough to stop shoddy maintenance practices--e.g., use of improper parts, insufficient documentation, inadequate training and procedures--and of not paying enough attention to the independent repair stations, where an increasing amount of maintenance is being performed. "Despite the increase in outsourcing, FAA concentrates its oversight of airline maintenance on work performed at the major carriers' in-house facilities," the report charges.
When the report was issued, FAA claimed it already had set corrective measures in motion. However, a February 2005, televised news report by CNN revealed that the controversy surrounding outsourcing and the quality of work at independent repair stations lingers on. In this case, the airlines were most criticized. "They're practicing risk management. They're taking a chance," warned Frank Boksanske, director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, offering his union's view of the airline's outsourcing practice to a CNN reporter.
Understandably, unionized maintenance personnel in the airline shops oppose outsourcing, especially to non-union shops. Union dissent aside, one U.S. carrier, American Airlines, claimed that it is "bucking" the outsourcing trend and now is performing 80 percent of its maintenance in-house, to "mitigate safety risks," according to an American spokesman in the CNN report.
Is outsourcing bad? Does FAA provide adequate oversight? The agency contends that its new Part 145 rule has "toughened" repair station standards. All repair stations now are required to have a quality control system, and all must meet the same performance standards, where before the agency divided repair stations into domestic, foreign and manufacturer maintenance facilities.
FAA also claims that it logged some 27,000 surveillance activities during the year after the new Part 145 rule was made effective (January 2004), 4,000 more than in the previous year. An FAA spokesman further reports that "the new Part 145 adds an FAA-approved training program to the existing training requirement for repair stations [and] raises the training and experience levels for inspectors and supervisory personnel."
Concerning outsourcing, FAA has issued a notice that directs its inspectors to "focus and perform surveillance" on air carriers' outsourced maintenance providers. The agency also is gathering data to establish quantifiable evidence that its new procedures are bearing fruit. "We anticipate measurable results within the next year," says the spokesman.
However, FAA officials admit that they have not increased their inspection staff, relying instead on the "improvement of the efficiency and effectiveness of the surveillance system," says the spokesman. This improvement includes taking in data from various sources to identify "risk indicators," which, in turn, allows FAA inspectors to "focus their repair station surveillance."
These new developments would appear to constitute a positive course of action, though criticism has been made that FAA policy is too reactive and not proactive in preventing maintenance issues. Like FAA, the airlines presumably have tried to make their inspection processes more streamlined. But improved efficiency and effectiveness have their limits.
In theory, there is nothing inherently wrong with the outsourcing process. (Of note, much of the outsourced avionics support is to the original equipment manufacturers, a practice that has raised no safety question.) But outsourcing does require vigilant oversight. The dilemma, as is too often the case, involves money. FAA and the airlines, both responsible for ensuring proper maintenance to air transport planes, find the need to expand staffing confronts restricted budgets. Regardless, until more inspectors are added, the controversy swirling around the repair station industry will no doubt continue.