By Andy Pasztor
Federal regulators, seeking to plug nagging safety loopholes, are proposing tighter rules for industry and government oversight of outside contractors that maintain airliners and a broad array of other commercial aircraft.
Slated to be formally unveiled Tuesday, the proposed package requires passenger airlines, charter carriers and cargo operators to ensure that independent maintenance firms working on their planes comply with the same procedures and quality-control provisions that apply to in-house mechanics.
The proposal aims to spell out more precisely the technical details of what outside contractors should do when they overhaul planes, and to make it easier for regulators to track whether they did the work appropriately.
Under the Federal Aviation Administration’s proposal, outside maintenance outfits would have to receive the same specific instructions and detailed manuals routinely provided to mechanics working directly for airlines and other commercial operators. That often doesn’t happen now, according to the FAA, because carriers are reluctant to share what could be proprietary or confidential data with outsiders.
The FAA, for its part, would have to be given more-precise information about the extent and location of work performed by contract maintenance providers.
The sweeping proposal, which applies to commercial planes carrying 10 or more passengers, comes after years of criticism of the FAA for failing to adequately oversee outside maintenance. Since 2003, the Transportation Department’s inspector has issued three separate reports criticizing allegedly lax FAA oversight in this area. The last report, according to the FAA document posted on the Federal Register Website, was issued in 2008.
The proposed rule says it aims to “ensure consistency between contract and in-house air carrier maintenance.” It also seeks to comply with inspector general recommendations to assure that FAA inspectors have the benefit of “a readily available list in an acceptable format” listing maintenance contractors working for individual airlines.
Many of the same general requirements are included in current regulations, but the latest version aims to make them tighter and more pointed. Airline maintenance manuals, for instance, often date back to an era when outsourced maintenance was not a major factor.
In recent years air carriers together outsourced more than 70 percent of their most extensive maintenance jobs to so-called third party providers, according to the FAA, about double what it was in 2003. That trend has been partly fueled by the precarious financial condition of the country’s biggest airlines, which can save money by moving maintenance visits to foreign hangars where labor rates and other operating costs are lower than in the U.S.
Acknowledging the crux of the regulatory problem, the agency’s proposal notes that the current lack of clarity and standardization makes it difficult for both airlines and the FAA “to provide meaningful oversight to ensure proper maintenance that is vital for the public’s continued safety.”