The government's oversight of hundreds of domestic and overseas repair stations that service U.S. airliners is ineffective and doesn't target the factors most likely to present safety risks, the Department of Transportation's inspector general said Monday.
The Federal Aviation Administration's supposedly risk-based safety inspection system "falls short of being truly risk-based," especially for foreign repair stations, the report said. Among the inspector general's criticisms is that the FAA's oversight lacks the rigor needed to identify safety deficiencies and verify that problems are corrected once identified.
To save money, U.S. airlines have increasingly outsourced their aircraft repair and maintenance to repair stations in countries where labor rates are cheaper. The FAA annually inspects 559 repair stations worldwide, while aviation authorities in France, Germany and Ireland inspect another 162 stations under agreements with the U.S.
Auditors from the inspector general's office visited or contacted FAA inspection offices and 27 aircraft repair stations in the U.S., Brazil, China, New Zealand, Peru and Singapore.
"The FAA's ability to conduct effective and consistent inspections of foreign and domestic repair stations is hindered by a lack of standardized inspection processes," the report said.
For example, FAA inspectors are supposed to use web-based spreadsheets and other risk-assessment tools. But nearly all the inspectors interviewed by auditors said they were not trained how to use the tools, did not recall the training or regarded it as poor, the report said.
Since FAA inspectors don't have the time during inspection visits to examine in depth each area of a repair station's operations, the agency decided five years ago that inspectors would analyze data from past inspections to decide which areas deserved the most attention. However, the report said inspectors have been using only the results of the previous year's inspections to guide their decisions rather than inspections from multiple years.
FAA's inspection database for the three years ending on Sept. 30, 2012 showed inspections at 20 of the 27 station investigated were late, the report said.
"We also found that inspectors continued to perform inspections in areas of repair station operations where little or no risk was previously detected," the report said.
Auditors also found deficiencies in 57 of 119 work orders for repair or major maintenance to airliners that they analyzed. Deficiencies included mechanics with insufficient training, tools whose calibrations were outdated, and inaccurate documentation of work orders.
"Until the agency modifies its inspection system, FAA's ineffective oversight could lead to repair stations operating contrary to federal aviation regulations and decreasing the margin of safety," the report said.
In a response included with the report, FAA officials concurred with nine recommendations made by auditors. The agency said it is also working on a new safety oversight system which it plans to begin implementing in 2015, a two-year delay from its originally planned rollout.
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