The proposal introduced by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives calling for a reauthorizaton of the FAA grabbed headlines for its pitch to pull air traffic control (ATC) out of the agency and set it up as a stand-alone nonprofit bureau. While this is newsworthy, the maintenance world will be eyeing other parts of the proposed legislation that would have far more influence on MRO providers than how the U.S. ATC system is managed.
At the top of the list: the return of a call to expand drug and alcohol testing to foreign repair station personnel who work on U.S.-registered aircraft.
The proposed law, dubbed the Aviation Innovation, Reform & Reauthorization Act (AIRR), repeats a call in the current reauthorization bill to mandate testing globally, consistent with local laws. This version would give the FAA deadlines of a draft rule within 90 days and a final rule within one year. It also calls for pre-employment background checks, which the Aeronautical Repair Station Association notes would be a “significant expansion of current regulatory requirements.”
The U.S. safety agency did not ignore the last congressional call, which mandated a draft rule by early February 2013. In March 2014, the agency issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, seeking input on the challenges of crafting a rule that complied with the myriad laws that govern drug and alcohol testing in countries that have FAA-approved repair stations. Much of the feedback highlighted these challenges, pointing out that some countries prohibit random testing.
The FAA’s acknowledgement that no safety justification exists for expanding its testing rules, in place for U.S.-based shops for 25 years, did not help its case. It was the same in 1984 and 1994, the last two times the agency attempted to expand the testing requirements, Pratt & Whitney noted in its comments. “It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to convince a foreign country to change its laws when the FAA concurs that there has never been any aviation accident directly attributed to a maintenance worker misusing or abusing drugs or alcohol,” the engine-maker said.
Pratt was joined by none other than the European Union, which said then that testing of aviation workers should be handled by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
But the apparent intentional crashing of Germanwings Flight 9525 by the Airbus A320’s first officer in March 2015 may have led to some officials changing their positions. A task force studying ways to mitigate such acts recommended random drug and alcohol testing for pilots and suggested the programs—once established—“might be considered” for “other safety-critical professionals.”
This may open the door, at least in Europe, to a proposal similar to the one in the FAA bill.
Chris Moore, chairman of the Teamsters Aviation Mechanics Coalition, credited union representatives’ efforts, including “hours walking the halls of the Senate and House office buildings,” for helping land the renewed call for testing expansion.
Added Louie Key, national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association: “The safety and security standards on the domestic technician, that help to ensure the public safety and reliability of aircraft maintenance, should be uniform no matter where the repair station is located.”
Other proposed changes with an MRO flavor include 18 “safety certification reform” actions. Among them: formation of a safety oversight and certification advisory committee, a call for a dedicated section in the FAA’s rules governing Organization Designation Authorizations, and a requirement to establish metrics for improving aircraft certification performance objectives, including “achieving full utilization of FAA delegation and designation authorities.”
Another section of the bill proposes that the FAA automatically accept foreign airworthiness directives (AD) from bilateral partners, such as the European Union, without the current draft notice-and-comment periods. “This could impose an unworkable burden on smaller U.S. companies to track foreign AD proposals,” notes the Modification and Replacement Parts Association. “[It] will mean that the U.S. companies will have to comment on the foreign AD, because it will have no reasonable opportunity to comment on a U.S. version if the FAA is required to accept foreign AD.”
The bill also proposes more targeted surveillance of foreign repair stations that perform heavy maintenance on U.S.-registered aircraft. The FAA’s approach should account “for the frequency and seriousness of any corrective actions that Part 121 air carriers must implement to aircraft following such work at such repair stations,” the bill states.
Introduced by Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chair of the aviation subcommittee, AIRR is in the early stages of a long and contentious journey. While a final version is inevitable—the FAA cannot function without it, though temporary extensions can prolong the need for a final decision—it will not come before the current law, itself a six-month extension of a three-year bill passed in 2012, expires on April 1.