The September’s closing of the FAA’s Frankfurt International Field Office will wrap up—on paper, at least—a multiyear transition that shifts oversight of most U.S. foreign repair stations based in Europe to European regulators. But a recent review by the U.S. Transportation Department, FAA’s parent agency, raised concerns about how prepared everyone was for the move, leading the FAA to pledge that fixes are in the works.
The change is part of a 2011 bilateral agreement between the U.S. and European Union (EU) that includes 18 European countries, making it the first multinational bilateral safety deal. Until recently, the FAA had its own inspectors in Europe to audit repair stations approved—or seeking approval—to maintain U.S.-registered aircraft. The bilateral cleared the way for the FAA to shift its oversight responsibility for repair stations in the countries included in the treaty to local authorities.
About 200 shops in France, Germany and Ireland were already being handled this way, thanks to existing bilaterals. The expanded deal called for another 220 FAA-approved MRO shops to be transferred to the new program by May 1, 2013, clearing the way for the FAA to close its field offices in London—in September 2011—and Frankfurt.
The FAA met the May 2013 deadline. But while harmonization to reduce duplicative oversight is widely accepted as good, an audit by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) suggests the transition, while on schedule, may have come too soon.
The main problem was shortcomings in training, on both sides. OIG faulted the FAA for not ensuring that the agency’s foreign counterparts were “ready to assume oversight responsibilities” for the U.S.-approved shops.
One of bilateral’s main tenets is that each side accepts the other’s oversight capabilities. But since the agreement includes countries with deep aviation safety oversight experience with others having very little, the FAA had to assess each civil aviation authority’s competency for applying U.S. regulations.
“Prior to transferring its oversight, FAA required each foreign authority to complete a self-assessment that contained important questions related to inspector training, workforce, and resource issues,” the OIG report explains. “However, FAA did not ensure that all questions in these assessments were answered or well-substantiated to support its conclusion that the foreign authorities possessed comparable capabilities to FAA.”
While the FAA held training sessions for European inspectors, the sessions lacked details on how to inspect repair stations or zero in on the 12 “special conditions”—or differences between European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and FAA regulations. Instead, OIG found, the meetings focused on the bilateral and existing regulations.
“As a result, FAA cannot be assured that foreign authority inspectors are ready to take on this oversight responsibility or that the repair stations are continuing to comply with regulations,” OIG says.
The auditors also found holes in how the FAA is managing the transition of its inspection workforce based in Europe. After handing over inspection responsibilities to their European counterparts, U.S. inspectors act as “country coordinators.” With the transition complete, their roles are evolving, but “FAA has not provided updated guidance to inspectors on their new roles,” OIG said. European country inspectors stressed to OIG the importance of their FAA liaisons, and by the end of 2015, all former FAA inspectors are to return to the U.S. OIG urged the FAA to provide updated guidance to help with the transition.
OIG also identified some procedural weaknesses that hamper the FAA’s monitoring of foreign repair station compliance. For instance, the bilateral stipulates that the only inspection data that must be shared relates to specific parts of the regulations, such as the special conditions, rather than entire inspection reports. The bilateral says full reports can be shared; any issues uncovered are supposed to be communicated to support the FAA’s risk-based oversight strategy. But FAA inspectors are reluctant to request full reports because they do not want to suggest that they do not trust their European counterparts’ judgment on what should be shared.
Another challenge is corrective action reports. While the FAA can still inspect foreign repair stations—it selects them randomly based in part in risk assessments—any corrective action is handled by the local civil aviation authorities, and the FAA may not see the follow-up report.
Add in a reduction in routine inspection frequency—the interval was increased from yearly to every two years—and the FAA is receiving less data than under the old system.
OIG made 12 recommendations to the FAA, with emphasis on improving its own guidance and training for foreign inspectors. It also called for more inspection report data-sharing.
The FAA says it is revising its guidance and improving training. It plans to have five of the recommendations implemented by April 2016 and the rest by mid-2017.