ARSA challenges TSA on repair station security

 - March 30, 2007, 10:45 AM

Once again general aviation is put in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. This time it comes from the Transportation Security Administration, where there is a great desire to solve the perceived problem of foreign and domestic repair station security.

The TSA called for a public meeting, via a notice in the Federal Register, urging participants to address several specific issues, including the type of security systems currently used at foreign and domestic repair stations; whether repair stations require background checks of their employees; the perceived vulnerabilities of the current system; and the level of spending on repair station security (AIN, March, page 86).

According to Christian Klein, legislative counsel for the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), the issue can be traced to legislation called Vision 100. Under Section 611, Foreign Repair Stations, the TSA must formulate regulations regarding the security of foreign and domestic repair stations. Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) 240 days from enactment of the bill to enact regulations, creating an August 9 deadline.

“If the TSA can’t make the deadline for the regulations, it has to tell Congress why not and give them a projected compliance date,” Klein said. “In any case, within 18 months of the issuance of the new regulations, the DHS has to audit every foreign repair station certified by the FAA to ensure compliance. The audit would fall on the shoulders of the FAA and if the agency is unable to comply it would be barred from certifying any new foreign repair stations until all the audits are completed.”

There are currently about 650 FAA-certified foreign repair stations. At a time when the agency is steadily moving in the direction of divesting itself of various oversight roles due to lack of staff, exactly where will the required personnel come from to complete 650 audits in 18 months? There is neither provision nor funding for additional FAA personnel in the legislation.

“ARSA is very concerned that the provision barring new foreign certifications if the audits aren’t completed might well result in retaliatory behavior by other civil aviation authorities,” Klein said. “The truth is there has been a persistent effort on Capitol Hill to make life difficult for independent maintenance providers, especially foreign repair stations, to do work on U.S.-registered aircraft.”

Klein said there had been an attempt to restrict work overseas on U.S. aircraft, but it failed. ARSA is concerned about upsetting the favorable balance of trade related to foreign repair stations. A lot more work is done on foreign aircraft than on U.S. aircraft by foreign repair stations. ARSA fears that attempts to restrict foreign repair stations could produce a backlash, resulting in foreign operators boycotting U.S. repair stations. “This is about union protectionism, pure and simple,” he charged.

Apparently, union technicians at large maintenance facilities–such as the airlines and OEMs–are concerned that the independent repair stations will take away business. A look at some of the organizations that attended the February 27 meeting, and how they grouped, is revealing.

According to Klein, there were primarily two segments of the industry at that meeting. ARSA, the Aerospace Industries Association, the Aircraft Electronics Association and the Regional Airline Association represented one point of view, and the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Section, the Transport Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers represented another. The lines were drawn.

“The unions have been trying to make life miserable for the Part 145 independent repair stations,” Klein said. Yet another problem is that the TSA isn’t limiting the action to foreign repair stations. It wants to “fix” repair station security problems in the U.S. too.

“Show us a problem, then we’ll show you a solution,” Klein told TSA officials at the meeting. “It’s our perception that security concerns were used to advance labor’s economic agenda on the Hill. We’re concerned that the TSA is having to devote its limited resources to focus on an area where no demonstrated security risk exists.”

Klein believes the proper way to have gone about this would have first involved a security assessment of the different kinds of repair station to determine the security risks. Then, regulations and audits could have focused on those types of facility with the highest risk. “Instead, the law paints everyone with the same broad brush and assumes that all present an equal risk, regardless of whether they work on aircraft or individual parts,” he said.

What seems clear is that any action will cost independent maintenance providers real money for compliance without a single piece of evidence that they present a risk greater than any other vendor does. “What is the threat and what is the risk?” Klein asked.

Yet raising this as a public issue creates another problem. By asking repair stations to publicly identify their perceived vulnerabilities, the industry would bring them to the attention of the public.

“We don’t want the docket for this hearing to become a handbook for terrorists looking to exploit the system,” Klein stressed. If industry details potential security areas publicly, it opens itself up to abuse from potential terrorists; if it doesn’t open itself up it runs the risk of having the TSA implement whatever it thinks is appropriate.

The fact is, current regulations already provide significant security within the industry, Klein said. He pointed out that AIR-21 prohibited certificate holders from employing people who have committed specific crimes, and it enacted drug-screening requirements. Also, the FAA has to certify repair stations, and theft-prevention systems already in place require badging and limited-access doors. In addition, a repair station located on an airport is already included in the airport’s security plan. It is not an island unto itself.

Klein pointed out that remotely located component repair facilities, those not on an airport, face very little risk because there’s so much testing already built into the system. A component repair facility does just that–repairs individual components, not entire aircraft.

An engine shop tests the parts on which it works before putting them in the engine. When the engine is reassembled it is tested before shipment. Once the engine is remounted on the aircraft, it’s again tested before the aircraft is put in service. The process is functionally the same for all components. “Even if there were a terrorist in a component repair shop, it wouldn’t change the testing that must be done before the part goes out the door,” Klein said. “What exactly would the terrorist do?
“We don’t perceive a risk that is specific to repair stations, so why would we impose new regulations just on repair stations rather than industrywide?” Klein asked.