FAA has pledged to improve internal guidance and training of foreign civil aviation authority inspectors in response to a U.S. Transportation Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) report that expresses concern about the shift in oversight of foreign repair station compliance with U.S. regulations.
The change is part of a 2011 bilateral aviation safety agreement (BASA) between the U.S. and EU that now includes 18 European countries. Until recently, FAA had its own inspectors in Europe to audit repair stations approved – or seeking approval – to maintain U.S.-registered aircraft. The bilateral accord cleared the way for FAA to shift its oversight responsibility of repair stations in the countries included in the treaty to local civil aviation authorities (CAAs).
About 200 shops in France, Germany and Ireland were already being handled this way under existing bilaterals. The expanded deal called for another 220 FAA-approved MRO shops to be transferred to the new program by May 1, 2013. That cleared the way for FAA to close its field offices in London and Frankfurt. The London office closed in September 2011, and Frankfurt is scheduled to close next month.
FAA met the May 2013 deadline. But while leveraging harmonization to reduce duplicative oversight is widely accepted as a positive step, an OIG audit released last month concluded the transition, while on schedule, may have come too soon.
The primary problem: training shortcomings. OIG faulted FAA for not ensuring that the agency’s foreign counterparts were “ready to assume oversight responsibilities” for the U.S.-approved shops.
One of the bilateral’s agreement’s main tenets is that each side accepts the other’s oversight capabilities. But the agreement’s breadth – mixing countries with deep aviation safety oversight experience with others that have very little – meant that FAA had to assess each European CAA’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 FAA conducted 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 the European Aviation Safety Agency’s and FAA’s 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 that inspectors transferred from Europe to the U.S. don’t have clearly defined roles. European country inspectors stressed to OIG the importance that their FAA liaisons play, and by the end of this year, all former FAA inspectors are slated to be relocated back to the U.S. OIG urged FAA to provide updated guidance to help with the transition.
OIG also urged FAA to ensure that inspection data its inspectors used to compile still gets provided to the U.S. agency to help with risk-based assessments data. Under the new system, corrective actions are now handled by locally based CAAs. The bilateral accord does not require full inspection reports to be shared, but says they can be provided upon request.
OIG made 12 recommendations to FAA, with emphasis on improving its own guidance and training given to foreign inspectors. It also called for more inspection report data sharing. FAA plans to have five of the recommendations implemented by April 2016, and the rest by mid-2017.
The Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) says OIG’s report blurs the BASA’s value.
“The value of these agreements has been well-documented, but their success depends on commitment by each government to the cooperative tenants of the arrangement,” ARSA wrote in its members-only Hotline newsletter. “By harping on the FAA’s inability to train and monitor its own as well as foreign inspectors, the report obscures the BASA’s value of international collaboration and the true effectiveness of the oversight transfer.”