A backlog of foreign repair station applications created by a byzantine U.S. congressional mandate is forcing airlines to reconsider both expansion and contract maintenance strategies, because desired stations don't have FAA-approved shops to work on U.S.-registered aircraft.

FAA has been legally prohibited from issuing new foreign repair station certifications since August 2008. The ban kicked in after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)—which has no ties to FAA beyond regulating different parts of the same industry—failed to meet a congressional deadline for issuing a repair station security rule. The original deadline, set by the December 2003 FAA reauthorization bill, was August 2004. When TSA didn't comply, Congress laid down a last-chance deadline of August 2008 and set up the automatic ban on FAA's issuing authority as a consequence of TSA's failure.

The ban paralyzes both new and existing repair stations seeking first-time approval to work on N-registered aircraft. Darcy Reed, FAA Aircraft Repair Station branch manager, says there are 80 applications in the queue to join the 700 existing FAA-approved shops outside the U.S.

A 2011 Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) survey found that more shops are poised to apply once the ban is lifted, meaning the de-facto backlog figure is really higher.

The ramifications ripple beyond MRO providers. Dave Giustozzi, American Airlines chief inspector-maintenance and engineering, says the carrier recently sought to add an international destination, but had second thoughts because no local MRO providers have or can get an FAA certificate.

“We all have ways to get around the one-offs, but I'd much rather have [an FAA-] certified entity at every station we fly,” Giustozzi told attendees at ARSA's recent annual symposium.

The ban has kept Atlas Air from expanding its scheduled maintenance vendor list. Atlas flew to 360 cities in 109 countries in 2012. While a team of 125 flight mechanics helps keep planes in service, a network that large requires an extensive network of reliable MROs. “There are a couple of new vendors that we'd like to try,” says Mark Swearingin, the carrier's VP-technical operations. But they don't have FAA certifications, so “they're off the table.”

Atlas counts 26 Boeing 747-400s and seven 747-8s among the 47 aircraft it owns or operates. The carrier's reliance on widebodies makes it particularly vulnerable to the ban, because 747 heavy maintenance options in the U.S. are so scarce. “Widebody maintenance globally is a precious commodity,” Swearingin acknowledges. The carrier's 747-400 fleet required 11 C Checks and four D Checks in 2012.

ARSA's 2011 survey on the ban's impact collected responses from 36 MRO providers. Twenty-seven said they either had an application in the queue or were planning on submitting one after the ban is lifted.

Respondents said they were losing a combined $18 million in annual revenue because of the ban's impact on operations.

Such direct bottom-line damage means the industry will embrace a less-than-ideal rule just to end the stalemate. TSA published its draft of the rule in November 2009. ARSA submitted 30 pages of suggested fixes and recommended a supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. By last August, ARSA was among 12 aviation associations urging TSA to just push out a final rule so FAA could end the stalemate. “The ban has put ARSA in the position of asking for a rule it doesn't want,” says Sarah MacLeod, executive director.

So far, the ban hasn't drawn foreign retaliation. Karl Specht, the European Aviation Safety Agency's (EASA) Continuing Airworthiness Organization manager, says his agency is “still issuing certificates for initial approvals in the U.S., and we will continue to do so.” The U.S. is home to about 1,200 EASA-approved repair stations.

Industry got some good news in mid-March when the White House Office of Management and Budget—which reviews pending federal regulations—acknowledged receipt of TSA's proposed rule. TSA Administrator John Pistole told the House Transportation security subcommittee in March that the final rule “should” be out by year-end.

Once the rule is out, FAA must plow through the backlog of applications, which is likely to be a slow process.

FAA's Reed says 35 of these are from repair stations based in the European Union (EU). The U.S.-EU bilateral allows EASA to conduct the initial inspections and other on-site legwork on such applicants, leaving FAA with minimal work to grant certificates. Applicants from countries without U.S. bilaterals will require more work by FAA, which could pose another problem.

Sequestration-related cuts, if not restored soon, mean furloughs of one or two days per pay period for thousands of FAA employees, including inspectors who help certify new repair shops. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told delegates at ARSA's event on March 22 that the inspector workforce would prioritize existing projects over new ones. While he did not specify which projects could be tabled, a new repair station certificate application certainly qualifies as, well, new.