Testimony delivered at a recent Congressional hearing on aviation safety indicated that FAA is making progress on shifting to a proactive, data-driven safety oversight system, but holes remain—as do concerns from industry about how the agency is enforcing its regulations.

The House aviation subcommittee hearing held April 25 spotlighted several aspects of aviation, with repair station oversight playing one of the starring roles. FAA's evolution of its risk-based oversight approach for repair stations “continues to be a challenge,” DOT Assistant Inspector General Jeffrey Guzzetti said in prepared testimony.

The new but now nearly five-year-old oversight system deployed for repair stations “still lacks the data and consistent implementation needed to be a true risk-based system,” he added.

Part of the challenge, Guzzetti indicated, is FAA's lack of confidence in its own data. Following a congressionally mandated National Research Council (NRC) study, FAA in 2009 introduced a new staffing model meant to help it with inspector workforce deployment. Guzetti's office is analyzing the new model, but already has concluded that the agency lacks confidence in the revised approach.

“We have determined that while FAA used the model to support an increase in the number of inspectors for its fiscal year 2012 budget request, it did not fully rely on the number projected by the model because FAA officials are not confident in the accuracy of the model's staffing,” Guzzetti told lawmakers. Guzzetti noted that FAA continues to refine the model, and his office plans to issue a report on the subject later this year.

Guzzetti's office also plans to issue a report in 2012 on repair station oversight, and early returns indicate that the findings won't be flattering. “FAA's surveillance at foreign and domestic repair stations also lacks the rigor needed to identify deficiencies and verify they have been addressed,” Guzzetti's testimony said.

Problems we identified during our 2003 review [“Air Carriers' Use of Aircraft Repair Stations, Report No. AV-2003-047] are still occurring. For example, we found systemic problems persist at repair stations in areas such as inadequacies in mechanic training, outdated tool calibration checks, and inaccurate work order documentation.”

Despite being required to review these areas, Guzzetti's team found during visits to repair stations that inspectors “had overlooked these types of deficiencies.”

On the industry side, ARSA Senior Vice President Gary Fortner also complained of FAA's inconsistency—in this case, with how its regulations are applied. Fortner, who runs Fortner Engineering, a hydraulic component repair and overhaul shop, shared a story of how an FAA inspector deemed one of his company's repair processes as “unapproved,” leading to an emergency suspension of the company's Part 145 repair station certificate. The finding came after 10 years of performing the repair with the full knowledge and de facto approval of a local FAA inspector.

While Fornter Engineering got its ticket back, it was forced to cut two-thirds of its workforce during the dispute.

“While my company's situation occurred years ago, ARSA members are routinely plagued by FAA's inconsistent application of regulations,” Fortner told lawmakers in prepared testimony. “ARSA members frequently cite inconsistent interpretation and enforcement as a major problem and the lack of regulatory standardization across regions particularly impairs small businesses.”

During the question-and-answer period, FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Peggy Gilligan said the agency hears industry loud and clear on this issue.

“We have heard the criticism,” she told subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri (R-Wis.) when asked about the repair station industry's complaints. “We're constantly looking for ways to document what proper process and procedures are, so our staff is well-trained.”

Gilligan noted that FAA has processes in place for industry to provide feedback when it feels that regulations aren't being consistently—or correctly—applied, adding that the agency welcomes such feedback.

“We're really building a culture that allows for that professional disagreement,” she said. “We think that's healthy.”

ARSA took advantage of its appearance to hammer on arguably the biggest regulatory problem facing the U.S. aviation maintenance industry these days: the freeze on new foreign repair station certifications. For those who have lost track (or perhaps started a career in aviation since this challenge first came to light), the 2003 FAA reauthorization law ordered the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to develop security rules for repair stations by August 2004. When TSA missed that deadline, lawmakers gave the agency four more years, but this time with a catch: failure to craft new rules by August 2008 would render FAA powerless for issuing new foreign repair station certificates. Now, more than eight years, 23 FAA reauthorization extensions and one new reauthorization bill later, TSA still hasn't met its mandate.

A 2011 ARSA survey highlighted some of the ramifications of the ban, including that it is disproportionately hurting small business (defined as those with less than 500 employees), is blocking expansion plans, and is costing U.S.-based companies about $18 million per year in lost revenue.

“The results of ARSA's informal survey are clear: TSA's failure to finalize repair station security rules is preventing U.S. aviation companies from tapping into rapidly expanding overseas markets, hindering domestic job creation and growth,” Fortner's prepared testimony noted. Further, ARSA believes that it is only a matter of time before foreign countries impose a reciprocal ban that prevents repair stations located in the United States from gaining approval from foreign CAAs.” —Sean broderick