April 01, 2013
Credit: Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings
A backlog of foreign repair station applications created by a byzantine U.S. congressional mandate is forcing airlines to reconsider both expansion and contract maintenance strategies, because desired stations don't have FAA-approved shops to work on U.S.-registered aircraft.
FAA has been legally prohibited from issuing new foreign repair station certifications since August 2008. The ban kicked in after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)—which has no ties to FAA beyond regulating different parts of the same industry—failed to meet a congressional deadline for issuing a repair station security rule. The original deadline, set by the December 2003 FAA reauthorization bill, was August 2004. When TSA didn't comply, Congress laid down a last-chance deadline of August 2008 and set up the automatic ban on FAA's issuing authority as a consequence of TSA's failure.
The ban paralyzes both new and existing repair stations seeking first-time approval to work on N-registered aircraft. Darcy Reed, FAA Aircraft Repair Station branch manager, says there are 80 applications in the queue to join the 700 existing FAA-approved shops outside the U.S.
A 2011 Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) survey found that more shops are poised to apply once the ban is lifted, meaning the de-facto backlog figure is really higher.
The ramifications ripple beyond MRO providers. Dave Giustozzi, American Airlines chief inspector-maintenance and engineering, says the carrier recently sought to add an international destination, but had second thoughts because no local MRO providers have or can get an FAA certificate.
“We all have ways to get around the one-offs, but I'd much rather have [an FAA-] certified entity at every station we fly,” Giustozzi told attendees at ARSA's recent annual symposium.
The ban has kept Atlas Air from expanding its scheduled maintenance vendor list. Atlas flew to 360 cities in 109 countries in 2012. While a team of 125 flight mechanics helps keep planes in service, a network that large requires an extensive network of reliable MROs. “There are a couple of new vendors that we'd like to try,” says Mark Swearingin, the carrier's VP-technical operations. But they don't have FAA certifications, so “they're off the table.”