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Boeing 737 MAX Fiasco Brings New Scrutiny to “Insane” Gap in Oversight of Foreign Repair Stations

As Reported By Ted Reed for Forbes

This story was updated Nov. 21 to reflect approval of the bill by a House subcommittee.

The Boeing 737 MAX fiasco has brought airline labor unions new hope that they can finally change the way foreign aviation maintenance bases are regulated.

Airline labor is backing a bill, “The Safe Aircraft Maintenance Standards Act,” introduced by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), that would strengthen the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of repair stations located outside the U.S. A House subcommittee, headed by DeFazio, approved the bill Wednesday.

The bill would address gaps between the intense regulation of U.S. airline maintenance bases and the far less stringent oversight of foreign repair stations.

“There are clear parallels between the safety and oversight gaps on the manufacturing side, with the Boeing MAX, and those on the maintenance side,” said John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents about 150,000 workers including 60,000 mechanics, fleet service workers and flight attendants at American, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines.

“We don’t want to have a situation where America wakes up one morning to a catastrophic disaster involving foreign maintenance of passenger aircraft, which is what happened with the MAX,” Samuelsen said.

Samuelsen, a onetime New York City subway inspector who took over as president of the Transport Workers Union in 2017, said he was surprised to learn, upon getting involved in the airline industry, of the oversight gaps which enable less scrutiny of foreign repair stations than of domestic repair stations.

 “It seemed that some of those inside the airline industry are too close to realize the insanity of it all,” he said.

On Wednesday, the bill was passed by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. It is now headed to the full House and, if members approve, it could to to the Senate.

It is opposed by Airlines for America, the airline industry trade group, and by Aeronautical Repair Station Association, a repair station trade group.

The bill would allow unannounced FAA inspections of foreign repair stations, establish minimum qualifications for mechanics – including drug and alcohol testing — and others working on U.S.-registered aircraft at foreign repair stations; and require improved data maintenance reporting to the FAA.

In fact, Congress addressed some of the same concerns in the 2012 and 2016 FAA reauthorization acts, but the safety measures have not been implemented by the agency. Drug and alcohol testing requirements, for instance, were in the 2012 bill and data reporting was included the 2016 bill.  But surprise inspections are new.

“We are going to push very hard on this bill, said Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, which collectively represents 32 transportation unions.

The continuing scrutiny of lax regulation of Boeing following two fatal crashes involving the 737 MAX means that “People are reminded how important it is to have proper FAA oversight and regulation of our aviation system,” Willis said. “We do think aviation safety is getting a lot of attention.”

“We have made some progress on these issues over the years, but so far what Congress has mandated has not gotten us there,” Willis said.

This time, in an effort to ensure implementation if it is passed, the bill contains a clause that say that if proper certification of foreign maintenance bases does not occur, no new foreign repair stations can be certified.

About 900 foreign repair stations are certified by the FAA, Willis said. Some perform work on airlines that fly domestic U.S. routes.

“Aircraft maintenance overseas needs to have the same standards as we have in the U.S.,” said Sito Pantoja, general vice president of the International Association of Machinists in a July interview.

“These are not new issues for us,” Pantoja said. “They are issues we have been addressing in FAA reauthorization bills for 20 years.”

 

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