Maintenance providers are under-represented in FAA’s push to leverage safety-related data as part of risk oversight—a trend that the agency is willing to dedicate resources to change, says FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety (AVS) Peggy Gilligan.

Addressing maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) executives at the 2014 Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) symposium on March 20, Gilligan noted that only 10 repair stations have approved Aviation Safety Action Programs (ASAP), and just five of them are actively filing reports. By contrast, 99 airlines have ASAPs.

Voluntary disclosure programs like ASAP are a key driver in helping the FAA allocate resources to the highest-risk areas, Gilligan emphasizes.

“Until we get everybody’s input, we’re never quite sure we’ve identified the risk,” she says. “We really do need to broaden that circle to make sure we are getting the best data.”

Gilligan used an example from FAA InfoShare—the agency’s regular, confidential meetings where industry exchanges best practices—to underscore how data-sharing helps mitigate real-world risk. An airline shared a washer installation issue it uncovered on a certain aircraft type. The washer, which fits between an outer wheel bearing and axle nut, is standard on some models of the aircraft, but not on others. The carrier found the washer would often get lost in grease during removal, and because it wasn’t required on all versions of the aircraft, it would be missed during reinstallation.

Other airlines went back to their technical operations shops and found the same issue and, using lessons learned from the first airline, were able to solve the problem.

“Everything hinges on the ability to share our data,” Gilligan says. “It is the single most important improvement we can make in aviation safety going forward.”

ARSA Executive Director Sarah MacLeod noted that while few MRO providers have active ASAP efforts, many have similar, internal programs. Some may be steering away from FAA’s data-intensive volunteer programs due to a lack of agency resources that hampers their effectiveness, MacLeod suggests.

Gilligan acknowledged MacLeod’s concern, telling delegates that the agency plans to back programs that provide valuable data.

“It is hard for us to find the resources to support all the programs at the same time, but one of our priorities is supporting voluntary data programs,” Gilligan says.

The improved federal budget situation should help. A hiring freeze put in place to prepare for sequestration meant several hundred open positions created through attrition within FAA’s AVS division went unfilled. The fiscal 2014 budget agreement provided some relief, and the agency is hiring again. The division is authorized at 7,238 positions, and had 6,921 staffers as of Feb. 22, an agency spokeswoman confirms.

Gilligan also noted that FAA’s safety management systems (SMS) rule for Part 121 carriers will have an impact on MRO providers, “and it should.” While SMS won’t change the basics of maintenance—air carriers will remain responsible for ensuring it is done according to approved FAA and internal procedures—it will require carriers to identify potential risks posed by MRO providers.

“MROs should be working with [airline customers] to understand how they can support carriers,” Gilligan says, noting that 79 airlines have SMS pilot programs.