Addressing the security threat at repair stations

 - November 2, 2006, 4:38 AM

One of the cornerstones of aviation is trust. Because it has been part of our foundation for so long, we don’t even think about it; it is just there. The rules that we operate under also assume that all airmen will be trustworthy individuals and will follow both the published rules and the spirit and intent of those rules. I think the definition of “trust” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary captures this well: “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something–one in which confidence is placed.”

I have been involved in aviation for more than 40 years, but it is only recently that I have started to wonder about the trustworthiness of some of the members of the aviation community.

The events of 9/11 and after have certainly focused attention on problems within our commercial aviation sector. Recent published reports of problems within our FAR 145 repair stations have added a new element of concern about the employees at the repair stations, particularly those who are illegal aliens. Federal agents have conducted investigations at 196 airports and audited 5,800 businesses, resulting in 1,000 arrests and 775 criminal indictments.

These indictments call into question the policy and procedures our industry uses to make hiring decisions, as well as the ethics and allegiances of the people who make those hiring decisions.

This problem is not limited to the airlines; the business aviation community also uses FAR 145 repair stations and other approved organizations in support of its aviation operations.

Bizav Under the Microscope

With all of the concerns these investigations raise, I am sure federal authorities will look even more closely at other areas of aviation. One has to wonder if the actions flowing from the recent business aircraft overrun accident at Teterboro, N.J., were prompted at least partially by this concern.

I have followed with particular interest the numerous press reports involving the FAR 145 repair station in North Carolina because the so-called insider who helped many get employed was a field coordinator for a contractor that was heavily involved with the January 2003 Beech 1900 accident, also in North Carolina.

That investigation called into question the training and qualifications of the maintenance personnel performing the work. One of the assumptions the employer made was that the individuals were qualified because they held valid airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificates. The A&P certificate indicates that the holder has completed basic training and needs to complete additional training to ensure he is truly knowledgeable and proficient. It is a license to learn.

The allegations of criminal activities around the FAR 145 repair station add a new and much graver element to the problem of illegal aliens working in sensitive positions. Some of these people had documents indicating a considerable amount of experience that reportedly was not true. This is exactly where the trusting nature of our industry has caused trouble and will continue to cause trouble unless we change the way we address this issue.

Policing Ourselves

I believe we are now at a crossroads, and the federal government will impose some new process or restrictions that we probably won’t like. Although there is not much we can do about the government’s actions, there are some things we can do to help the government do its job without making the burden on us unbearable.

While I was an NTSB member, the Board investigated several accidents after which other pilots reported that the pilot who crashed had exhibited a lack of basic flying skill. That needs to change: we need to be open about what we observe and share our concerns before something happens. I know none of us wants to be a whistleblower, but given the times in which we now find ourselves operating, attitudes must change. The business aviation community is under considerable scrutiny resulting from the poor performance of a few.

Some of the few indicted were known as underperformers to their peers, who did not share that information with anyone who could do something about it. Can you imagine what restrictions would be imposed on us if someone were to create a bogus record about a pilot’s training and experience? And what would happen if that individual were in the cockpit of a business aircraft when dire circumstances revealed his lack of skill?

That is not what we want to happen. It would negate work under way on a host of issues such as the reopening of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to business aircraft. There are just too many important issues out there for us to continue to do business the old way. There are ways to let an individual know he/she has a problem without being offensive, and there are constructive ways to let management know what you have observed.

We all need to use the available tools o report a performance problem before it becomes the subject of a federal case, saving us a lot of grief.

Regardless of the paper trail of work experience a job applicant presents, there are methods of checking on that experience. Working with newly hired mechanics on the hangar floor can soon reveal their true experience, so why wouldn’t someone report that a mechanic’s performance belied his stated experience? When we see something that concerns us, we must make the proper person aware of our concerns before the situation gets out of control.