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"Oberstar Vows to Address Foreign Maintenance of U.S. Aircraft in FAA Bill"

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Oberstar Vows to Address Foreign Maintenance of U.S. Aircraft in FAA Bill 
By Kathryn A. Wolfe
Congressional Quarterly - CQ Today

Passengers boarding a JetBlue airliner are likely to be struck by the soft
leather seats, personal satellite televisions and generous leg room. What
they probably don't know is that the sleek Airbus A320 may have just
undergone heavy maintenance - in El Salvador.

Unions for U.S. aircraft mechanics have been fighting the trend of
outsourcing airplane maintenance overseas - without much success - since
1988, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began allowing domestic
airlines to send their planes abroad for scheduled maintenance, such as
heavy engine overhauls.

But with pro-labor Democrats writing an FAA reauthorization bill, the issue
has gained new prominence. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman
James L. Oberstar said the House FAA bill, which could be marked up as early
as next week, will address foreign aircraft-repair stations. Meanwhile, a
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee has scheduled an
oversight hearing on the subject for Wednesday.

"We will deal with the issue," said Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who has
said he considers the issue a public safety concern. 

Oberstar said he hasn't decided whether to address the standards for what
kinds of repairs can be conducted in certain facilities. But he said the
bill will include language that would boost the number of FAA safety
inspectors who oversee foreign facilities.

"Certainly the FAA is deficient in numbers of personnel [overseeing foreign
repairs]," he said. "It's not enough. And we're going to increase those
levels, to some number that I have not yet decided upon."

Airlines argue that outsourcing repair work is widely accepted, safe and
even necessary in a global marketplace. Unions contend that foreign
mechanics typically lack the skills and training of their U.S. counterparts
and that the FAA does little to oversee the quality of overseas facilities.

Both sides claim the high ground of safety, but in many ways the debate is a
classic battle between jobs and costs.

"The fact is, [outsourcing] is done for one reason, and that's to save
money," said Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill., who
is drafting the House FAA bill along with Oberstar. "It's becoming a major

A Growing Trend

For U.S. airlines that have struggled with skyrocketing fuel expenses, hefty
pension and labor costs and the disruption in business after the 2001
terrorist attacks, outsourcing maintenance is a matter of simple economics.
The Transportation Department's inspector general reports that the
percentage of maintenance costs spent on outsourced labor - a large portion
of it foreign - increased to 67 percent in 2006, from 37 percent in 1996.

With mechanics in Asia or Latin America earning sometimes as little as half
what their U.S. counterparts earn, experts say it is no mystery that
airlines competing for fare-conscious passengers have increasingly looked to
reduce maintenance costs.

"People know if they lose something [from service] in the cabin," said Ken
Button, director of George Mason University's Center for Transportation
Policy. "They know if they lose a bread roll off of the dinner. Saving money
in the cabin is getting increasingly difficult. If you can save a little bit
of money without being noticed by passengers, it's one thing [airlines]
really want to try and do."

But at a subcommittee hearing in March, Oberstar questioned whether the FAA
is doing enough to make sure that foreign repair facilities meet U.S.

"The [act that created the FAA] says, 'Safety shall remain at the highest
possible level,' '' Oberstar said. "Not at the level airlines can afford,
not what they want to pay, not what they can outsource to pay, but the
highest possible level. And FAA is that guardian."

In a 2005 report, the Transportation Department's inspector general noted
that airlines are increasingly using uncertified overseas maintenance
facilities. FAA-certified facilities must adhere to more rigorous standards,
whereas uncertified facilities typically require only a single FAA-certified
mechanic to sign off on repairs. 

There are no requirements for FAA inspections or quality-control systems at
uncertified facilities, and the inspector general said the FAA does not even
maintain a list of which repair facilities airlines use.

The FAA says the standards for overseas and domestic mechanics are similar
but acknowledges that it cannot require foreigners to undergo the background
checks and regular drug and alcohol testing required of U.S. mechanics.

"We require that all aircraft that are registered in the United States be
maintained to U.S. standards, regardless of where they operate," said
Nicholas A. Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety.
"Due to the global nature of aviation, we must have repair stations that
meet U.S. standards throughout the world."

Safety Audits Lagging

At the hearing in March, Oberstar expressed skepticism about FAA claims that
El Salvador has a certification system so similar to the United States' that
the agency considers the TACA Aeroman facility used by JetBlue Inc. to be
fully certified. JetBlue says TACA's facility has operated since 1931 and is
highly regarded. The carrier says it also maintains its own supervisors at
the site.

"It's not a shortcut by which shoddy maintenance is tolerated," Basil
Marimo, vice president of operations and safety for the airlines' trade
group, the Air Transport Association, testified at the March subcommittee
hearing. "If there's a systemic problem with contract maintenance, the
safety data would have exposed it." 

Although there have been no known accidents directly linked to subpar
overseas repair work, Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation
Trades Department, suggested it is only a matter of time. He said his union
receives frequent anecdotal reports from U.S. mechanics who find themselves
repairing aircraft because "the facility that did the work basically didn't
know what they were doing."

Although the unions and their congressional allies are pushing for new
restrictions on foreign maintenance, the FAA and the Homeland Security
Department have yet to begin conducting safety audits of foreign repair
facilities mandated in the last FAA reauthorization (PL 108-176), in 2003. 

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Jim Langevin,
D-R.I., have introduced legislation (HR 1981) to compel the agencies to
start conducting these audits.

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