Is the latest Inspector General report slamming the FAA a harbinger of things to come in the soon-to-be-created Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category? On Thursday the Transportation Department's Inspector General criticized lack of oversight by the FAA on some maintenance facilities. It singled out the difficulties the FAA has with making sure work done in foreign countries is up to U.S. standards. That's been one of the main concerns of U.S. manufacturers who may face an influx of less-expensive imported aircraft when LSA becomes a reality. Oversight of foreign manufacturers is identified as a priority in the LSA rulemaking process but for some the FAA's record on overseeing offshore maintenance of U.S. airliners, as raised in the Inspector General's report, may suggest cause for concern. The report says that the FAA often can't determine whether offshore maintenance facilities are properly run because the inspectors from the other countries file their reports in other languages or in garbled English. Also, the American inspectors are typically not allowed to conduct unannounced inspections of foreign facilities. The report also says that employment standards for aircraft mechanics in other countries are not as high as in the U.S. It said mechanics in foreign countries are not always required to undergo the drug, alcohol and security-background checks they must clear in the U.S.
Maintenance concerns were raised during the investigation into the crash of an Air Midwest Beech 1900 in Charlotte last January and the Inspector General is warning more safety problems could arise if the FAA doesn't tighten inspections of contract maintenance facilities. Meanwhile, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) is concerned that the FAA's plans to Oct. 6 implement new rules for repair stations and quality-control manuals does not provide shops opportunity to study the rules and comment. NATA Vice President Jeb Burnside is also concerned about a new policy that would require component repair be treated as outsourced maintenance. He said the rule would increase paperwork and costs without improving safety. "When a repair station simply sends out a part for repair or overhaul by an FAA-certificated authority, there is no rational reason why that transaction needs to be labeled as contract maintenance," said Burnside, "This policy on contract maintenance clearly places an untenable financial burden on small businesses at a time when they can ill afford it." On average, about half the maintenance performed on U.S. airliners is done by outside contractors but the report says the contractors get far fewer visits from the FAA than do the airlines' in-house facilities. The report didn't name names but in one case an airline's own shop was inspected 260 times in 2002 while its contractor had only six inspections. The quality of those inspections is also suspect. The report says inspectors sometimes spend as little as 20 minutes reviewing whether repair stations meet standards. All this doesn't mean the system is unsafe, however, according to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. "You will not find in the report any data or indications that there is anything unsafe," she told a news conference. At the same time, Blakey said the FAA agrees with most of the findings in the report and will step up surveillance of the repair stations.