New Bill Could Curtail Offshoring U.S. Aircraft Maintenance

Capitol Hill
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U.S. MRO providers are increasingly challenged in recruiting and retaining new workers at affordable rates. One response to this challenge, used extensively since 2000, has been outsourcing heavy airframe maintenance to foreign repair stations, which can tap large and generally eager pools of workers at wages often lower than those paid in the U.S.

But a new bill introduced in the U. S. House of Representatives could make using foreign repair stations more difficult or expensive and, in some cases, impossible. The bill is similar to a 2022 bill passed by the House in September, but which the Senate ultimately referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The new bill, however, may have a better shot at passing—it is backed by unions and at least one neutral observer, but opposed by airlines, U.S. shops and aerospace OEMs.

H.R. 1716, dubbed the Global Aircraft Maintenance Safety Improvement Act, seeks more unannounced FAA inspections of foreign repair stations and would require airlines to submit annual reports to the FAA about heavy maintenance work on aircraft performed outside the U.S.

The bill forbids new foreign repair stations located in countries that do not meet safety oversight standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and forbids new airline heavy MRO contracts with repair stations in these same countries. In April 2023, these blackballed nations included Mexico and Thailand. However, the FAA has concluded that most significant Asian nations meet these standards, as do El Salvador and Costa Rica, which are home to foreign repair stations used by U.S. carriers.

Bill sponsors also want supervisors and staff who approve MRO work at foreign repair stations to be certified under the FAA or some equivalent certification rules. Lastly, two years after enactment, the bill would ban international travel by FAA inspectors—and thus, effectively, foreign repair stations—until the agency issues a final rule requiring drug and alcohol testing at these stations.

“I introduced this bipartisan bill so foreign aircraft maintenance facilities will be held to the same safety standards that we have in the United States,” says Rep. Marcus Molinaro (R-NY), who introduced the measure. “This bill is necessary because it will ensure the highest level of aircraft safety and remove the incentive to offshore jobs.” Molinaro is seeking the bill’s inclusion in 2023’s FAA Reauthorization Bill, which is must-pass legislation.

Christian Klein, executive vice president of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), sees the bill as an expensive and wasteful “solution in search of a problem.” Klein believes the bill would unnecessarily divert resources from an already stretched FAA and could create additional problems.

For example, Klein says defect reports would burden carriers and the FAA, and provide an opportunity for a “fishing expedition” by opponents of foreign repair stations. He also argues that prohibition of maintenance in nations where regulators do not meet ICAO standards ignores the fact that their MROs are still subject to largely the same FAA and U.S. airline requirements as domestic shops.

The bill’s deadline for a rule on drug and alcohol testing at foreign repair stations runs up against the difficulties that have been frustrating this same proposed rule for years: a patchwork of different privacy laws in other countries and the variety of drugs that afflict different populations.

Klein does support another provision of the bill, which would set up a working group to improve oversight of foreign repair stations.

There is no question that performance of maintenance at foreign repair stations is subject to almost all the same legal requirements as U.S. shops. The question is how well these requirements are enforced outside the U.S.

Former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia supports H.R. 1716, arguing that the FAA has not been monitoring performance at foreign repair stations frequently and effectively enough. Goglia says airlines have cut back on staff permanently stationed at foreign repair stations to monitor performance. He also believes that, despite data on foreign repair station defects being reported to the FAA, it will be difficult for the public to access.

Goglia also strongly backs drug and alcohol testing for foreign repair stations, pointing out that this policy has long applied to U.S. MRO providers. Technicians in the U.S. are subject to drug tests before they are hired and randomly throughout their careers when there is reasonable cause for a test or after an accident. In 2022, less than 2% of worker tests came back positive for one or more drugs, and about 1% of tests revealed a blood alcohol level of at least .02, according to the FAA.

These levels among mechanics appear well below rates for the greater U.S. population. By 2019, the U.S. had the highest rate of drug and alcohol addiction in the world—nearly 6%—according to researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Other highly addicted countries, with more than 4% addiction rates, included Brazil, Russia, Australia and Canada. For Central America, where much U.S. narrowbody maintenance is done, the research institute estimated an addiction rate of 2-3%.

U.S. carriers believe safety rules and their enforcement are strong enough now. Airlines For America (A4A) says U.S. carriers already have robust safety management systems that collect maintenance data from both domestic and international shops and other suppliers. “The FAA already has access to that data, nullifying the need for additional onerous and duplicative reporting requirements,” an A4A spokesperson adds.

One industry source, who declined to be identified, said most U.S. airlines that use foreign repair stations still maintain staff on-site, although the number of these airline employees can vary.

Southwest Airlines, long famous for outsourcing extensively to both U.S. and foreign shops, insists the present system is working well. The carrier says its MRO suppliers meet stringent safety requirements, including screening for safety, compliance with regulations, culture, training and strict operations.

Nevertheless, ARSA’s Klein considers it quite possible that some version of H.R.1716 will be enacted. A significant portion of the Republican party has shifted focus from free trade principles toward preserving American jobs, despite U.S. challenges in MRO and other industries with finding enough workers for jobs. More than half of the bill’s 33 co-sponsors are Republican legislators.

As with last year’s similar proposed bill, the measure’s fate will likely be determined by the Senate.