U.S. airlines are increasingly turning to nonregulated aircraft-repair shops to perform scheduled maintenance and critical repairs, according...

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U.S. airlines are increasingly turning to nonregulated aircraft-repair shops to perform scheduled maintenance and critical repairs, according to a report by government investigators released Monday.

Such so-called “non-certificated facilities” long have been used for simple tasks on commercial jets, such as checking oil or changing tires. Consequently, the Federal Aviation Administration has not monitored their operations or required them to obtain licenses.

After reviewing maintenance practices of six airlines, Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead concluded “non-certificated facilities can, and often do, perform the same type of work as FAA-certificated repair stations, including both scheduled and critical maintenance.”

The review was prompted by the January 2003 crash of an Air Midwest jet in Charlotte, N.C. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that insufficient oversight of work performed at a noncertificated repair facility was a contributing cause of the crash.

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Mead called on the FAA to figure out how many nonregulated shops are performing critical repairs, and consider placing limits on the type of work done at such facilities.

The use of third-party repair shops has soared in recent years as financially strapped U.S. carriers have sought to cut costs any way they can. More than 50 percent of the $4.9 billion U.S. airlines spend on maintenance each year now goes to external repair shops, according to the inspector general’s report.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines only sends its jets to repair shops that have the government’s seal of approval, a spokeswoman said.

“Our maintenance policies require that we work only with FAA-certified repair facilities,” said Caroline Boren, an Alaska spokeswoman. “That includes absolutely everything, including paint repairs.”

Engine swaps, repairs to hydraulic valves and replacement of flight-control motors were among the complicated tasks the inspector general found performed by nonregulated shops.

The FAA has not placed any limitations on the type of work noncertificated repair facilities can do.

This creates a potentially dangerous “double standard,” according to the report, since certificated repair shops must meet strict requirements for quality control and inspections.

The FAA, in its formal response to the inspector general, said all work done on commercial jets must be performed by mechanics who have received FAA certification, even if the repair stations they work for have not been certified.

Further, these mechanics are subject to the maintenance regime of each airline they assist, the FAA said.

The inspector general’s report countered that airlines provide insufficient training and oversight of mechanics at noncertificated facilities.

One airline provided less than an hour of video training to external mechanics, according to the report. Another merely provided a workbook detailing maintenance procedures and asked mechanics to sign and fax back a form stating those steps had been followed.

Most third-party repair facilities perform thorough work that meets or exceeds government safety requirements, says the report.

Yet the inspector general found there are now as many as 1,400 noncertificated repair shops working on U.S. planes, including 104 foreign facilities that had never been inspected by the FAA.

“Airlines contract out this maintenance work to save money, but with those savings we must ensure that there is not an erosion of the margins of safety,” said Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar asked the inspector general to conduct the audit.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com