The FAA’s Aviation Safety division has a shrinking staff due to federal budget cuts, and so it is betting on less manpower-intensive risk-based surveillance programs to help inspectors keep tabs on aviation businesses. An unflattering audit of one of the FAA’s most extensive risk-based programs—oversight of some 4,800 repair stations—suggests that the agency’s bet is a risky one.

A recent Transportation Department Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) report found that the FAA’s shift to a risk-based system is suffering from major systemic flaws. The OIG also found that foreign repair stations are not subjected to a risk-based approach at all.

The FAA began shifting its repair station oversight to a risk-based system in 2007. The goal was to collect data on a predetermined set of factors and use them to identify specific areas of risk. Inspectors would then focus on those areas to ensure repair stations were addressing known issues.

The agency developed two primary tools for inspectors: the Repair Station Assessment Tool (RSAT) and the Risk Management Process (RMP). Designed to help inspectors collect data, analyze findings and determine risk, most inspectors say the tools are either inadequate or of no use at all.

Limited Reach

The Web-based RSAT is a spreadsheet of the 16 inspection elements the FAA established for repair stations. Inspectors can update data only once per year, however, which poses a challenge to making timely adjustments to risk factors, such as when something happens a few months after the most recent data update.

RSAT also falls short as a trending tool. Rather than showing a repair station’s complete data history, it shows only what was entered the previous year, making long-term trending impossible.

Adding to the challenge, the OIG found that because many inspectors have not been trained to use RSAT, they do not. Instead, they rely on their own inspection checklists and provide feedback in myriad ways. (At least one repair station says it received its audit findings and corrective actions in handwritten notes.)

However, RSAT fares better than RMP, which the OIG determined inspectors simply do not use.

The weak set of tools is backed by inadequate training, the OIG found. “FAA inspectors we interviewed stated they did not know how to use the risk assessment tools effectively because they were not formally trained,” the audit report states. FAA officials say training takes place at an agency training academy, but 33 of 36 inspectors interviewed by the OIG reported that they were not trained, could not remember being trained or considered the training “poor.”

Weak tools and questionable training sit atop an unsound program foundation, the OIG noted. Of the 16 inspection elements on a repair station audit, nine—including training, quality control and technical data—are required annually, regardless of risk. The other seven—including manuals, personnel records and records systems—are risked-based, with required checks every three years, if no risk is detected. FAA guidance does not explain why. (At foreign repair stations, everything is checked during each inspection.)

These shortcomings mean that repair stations are subjected to a haphazard, inconsistent inspection process that—according to the OIG, at least—is missing quite a bit.

The OIG team visited 27 repair stations, including 13 foreign facilities. Many are big-name MRO operations, including AAR Aircraft Services in Miami; Rolls-Royce Engine Services in Indianapolis; Heico’s component group in Miami; Ameco Beijing in China; Texas Aero Engine Services in Fort Worth; and Bombardier Services in Atlanta.

Among the OIG’s findings: 21 facilities lacked accurate mechanic training records; 13 had problems with tooling and equipment (such as out-of-date tool calibration records); and 10 had “deficiencies” in their maintenance processes, such as employees signing off on work they were not authorized to complete. The report did not link findings to specific repair stations.

Improvements Needed

The OIG made 10 recommendations to the FAA based on its findings. The FAA concurred with each one, noting that some, such as bolstering inspector training, are underway.

“While FAA has made strides in improving its inspections of repair stations by implementing a new oversight system, this system falls short of being truly risk-based, especially for foreign repair stations,” the OIG says.

The audit was the OIG’s third in the last decade on FAA repair station oversight; each found areas that needed improvement. This time around, however, the findings may foreshadow more than just the FAA stepping up to tackle another set of recommendations.

Like the rest of the government, the FAA is facing congressionally mandated budget cuts through 2022. While it has been spared the fiscal 2013 cuts thanks to lawmakers’ decision to allow it to reallocate airport grant funds, not all budget cuts have gone away.

The FAA’s Aviation Safety division staff numbered 7,148 on April 30, down nearly 300 positions from the start of fiscal 2013 on Oct. 1. The reductions have come through attrition; a hiring freeze aimed at keeping costs down has kept desks empty.

The staff reduction’s effects are measurable. FAA officials acknowledge delays in operator and aircraft certification services and increases in time required to process pilot medical certificates and aircraft registration services.

As the mandatory budget cuts took hold and the hiring freeze began shrinking payroll, senior FAA officials pointed to programs such as risk-based surveillance as ways it would keep up with certificate holders. The OIG’s audit suggests the challenge, at least in the maintenance hangar, is as large as a mega-transport.