Aviation Safety:

FAA Oversight of Repair Stations Needs Improvement

RCED-98-21: Published: Oct 24, 1997. Publicly Released: Nov 24, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) oversight of the aviation repair station industry, focusing on: (1) the nature and scope of the oversight of repair stations conducted by FAA personnel; (2) how well FAA follows up on inspections to ensure that the deficiencies in repair station operations are corrected once they have been identified; and (3) the steps taken by FAA to improve the oversight of repair stations.

GAO noted that: (1) FAA's records indicate that the agency is meeting its goal of inspecting every repair station at least once a year; (2) GAO examined FAA's 1996 inspection records on about one-fourth of the 2,800 repair stations doing work for air carriers and confirmed that minimum inspection requirements had been met; (3) in addition, 84 percent of the inspectors GAO surveyed stated that they believed the overall compliance of repair stations was good or excellent; (4) however, more than half of the inspectors stated that there were areas of compliance that repair stations could improve; (5) FAA relies primarily on reviews by individual inspectors of most domestic repair stations; (6) in a few cases, FAA also uses teams to assess compliance at large, complex facilities; (7) at such facilities, a team approach has been shown to be more effective at identifying problems than visits by individual inspectors, uncovering more systemic and long-standing deficiencies; (8) a few of FAA's offices have recognized that the traditional approach of relying on one inspector may be inadequate in such situations and have begun to use teams to inspect large repair stations; (9) FAA officials acknowledge and support these initiatives; (10) GAO could not find sufficient documentation to determine how well FAA followed up to ensure that the deficiencies found during the inspections of repair stations were corrected; (11) FAA does not tell its inspectors what documentation to keep, and the resulting information gaps lessen the agency's ability to determine how well its inspection activities are working or to identify and react to trends; (12) these gaps in documentation are particularly important because FAA is spending more than $30 million to develop a reporting system that, among other things, is designed to use the documentation to make inspection decisions, such as where to apply the agency's inspection resources to address those areas that pose the greatest risk to aviation safety; (13) following the May 1996 crash of a ValuJet DC-9 in the Florida Everglades, FAA announced new initiatives to upgrade the oversight of repair stations; (14) these initiatives were directed at clarifying and augmenting air carriers' oversight of repair stations, not at ways in which FAA's own inspection resources could be better utilized; and (15) however, FAA does have three other efforts under way that would have a more direct bearing on its own inspection activities at repair stations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FAA has not yet implemented this recommendation. The agency published the final rule covering oversight of repair stations on August 6, 2001, and it will be effective on October 3, 2003. The rule does not cover certification and training requirements of maintenance personnel as called for in GAO's recommendation. According to FAA, the agency is now working on a new proposed rule to address repair station ratings and quality assurance systems. The comment period will close on September 18, 2004, with an estimated publish date of January 17, 2006. FAA official stated that the agency is required, by statute, to allow 16 months after the close of a Notice or Propose Rulemaking comment period to establish a publish date.

    Recommendation: To ensure that outdated regulations governing the oversight of repair stations and certification and training requirements for maintenance personnel are updated as soon as possible, the Secretary of Transportation should instruct the Administrator, FAA, to expedite the efforts to update the regulations and to establish and meet schedules for completing the updates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The comprehensive Data Quality Plan details the strategies for improving data quality. It was updated in September 1997, and includes the strategies implemented to address data quality issues, and provide a vehicle to track short- and long-term activities. FAA continues to monitor the implementation of the strategy for data quality improvement to ensure reliable date for use in SPAS. The Flight Standards Information Resource Management staff is responsible for monitoring the progress of data improvement efforts. Efforts in this area are conducted on a continuous basis.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA inspectors are effectively documenting and resolving deficiencies found during inspections, the Secretary of Transportation should instruct the Administrator, FAA, to monitor the implementation of the strategy to improve data quality to ensure it is completed as soon as possible so that the data used in the Safety Performance Analysis System (SPAS) are reliable when the system is fully implemented in 1999.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA issued a Handbook Bulletin (HBAW 99-06) requiring documentation in certificated repair station files. The bulletin supplements current guidance in the Airworthiness Inspectors' handbook, and will be incorporated into a future revision. The Bulletin does not address the issues raised by GAO. Specifically, GAO cited the lack of documentation in the FAA files of repair stations regarding inspection results, and documentation regarding how any deficiencies were corrected. The bulletin does not include any discussion of maintaining records regarding inspection results, deficiency letters prepared by FAA, repair station responses to deficiencies, or FAA's responses indicating that deficiencies were corrected. Furthermore, the Bulletin discusses "guidance for the minimum documentation that the repair station might maintain," rather than the intention of the recommendation, records that FAA should maintain. FAA issued another bulletin, effective September 7, 2000, which provides new guidance for recording inspection results in PTRS, the automated inspection reporting system. The guidance provides for greater detail of inspection results and findings, and requires that the inspectors complete all inspection areas for a report to be completed. However, the guidance remains silent on reporting the repair station's response to the inspector's findings, the corrective action taken, FAA's approval for the corrective action, and finally, that the deficiencies were corrected.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA inspectors are effectively documenting and resolving deficiencies found during inspections, the Secretary of Transportation should instruct the Administrator, FAA, to specify what documentation should be kept in files on repair stations to record complete inspection results and follow-up actions. The documentation should include inspection results, deficiency letters, repair station responses to deficiencies, and FAA's responses indicating that the deficiencies were corrected.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA's Improved Surveillance Process effort resulted in the development of the Air Transport Oversight System (ATOS). ATOS surveillance is performed in a system-safety context that includes oversight of repair stations that support a carrier's operations. ATOS includes team inspections to perform an in-depth look at an airline's policies and procedures. ATOS was implemented for the 10 largest carriers on October 1, 1998. ATOS only covers the carrier's oversight of a repair station, rather than that of the FAA inspector assigned to the facility. Recently, GAO suggested that FAA not expand ATOS to additional airlines, repair stations, or other aviation operations until problems GAO identified were corrected. FAA acknowledged that there were significant challenges to further implementation and agreed that expansion needs to be delayed. At this time there is no timetable for expansion of ATOS.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should instruct the Administrator, FAA, to expand the use of locally based teams for repair station inspections, particularly for facilities that are large, complex, have higher rates of noncompliance, or meet predetermined risk indicators.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA's ISP resulted in the development of ATOS. ATOS surveillance is performed in a system-safety context that includes oversight of repair stations that support a carrier's operations. It utilizes job aids, which include areas which inspectors should review for each type of inspection. ATOS was implemented for the 10 largest carriers on October 1, 1998. ATOS only covers the carrier's oversight of a repair station, rather than that of the FAA inspector assigned to the facility. Recently, GAO suggested that FAA not expand ATOS to additional airlines, repair stations, or other aviation operations until problems GAO identified were corrected. FAA acknowledged that there were significant challenges to further implementation and agreed that expansion needs to be delayed. At this time there is no timetable for expansion of ATOS to cover repair station oversight.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should instruct the Administrator, FAA, to develop and use checklists or job aids for inspectors that allow a greater degree of comprehensiveness, standardization, and assurance that the repair station complies with regulatory requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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