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Report criticizes FAA oversight on air repair stations

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal audit of private repair stations increasingly responsible for maintenance of the nation's airlines has found significant mistakes in 86 percent of the facilities visited in the United States and abroad.

In a report issued Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General said the Federal Aviation Administration had not done enough to stop shoddy practices.

The inspector general's office said the discrepancies found during a recent 16-month period included "use of improper parts and equipment, insufficient documentation that workers were properly qualified and trained to do repairs, inadequate policies and procedures, and uncorrected repetitive deficiencies."

The FAA said Thursday that it already is moving to tighten its oversight of private repair stations.

The agency said new rules are set to go into effect in October to toughen standards, increase surveillance and develop more detailed procedures and training for contract maintenance workers. In addition, the regulations will require a minimum of 18 months of maintenance experience for foreign repair station supervisors and the ability to speak, read and write the English language.

The report from the inspector general's office documented more reliance on maintenance outsourcing by U.S. airlines rather than use of in-house mechanics.

It found that major air carriers are using outsourced facilities for up to 47 percent of their maintenance costs.

There are about 650 foreign and 4,600 domestic repair stations authorized by the FAA to perform repairs to aircraft on the behalf of U.S. airlines. The airlines are responsible for making sure the private repair stations fully comply with all federal regulations. FAA inspectors perform periodic quality checks of the facilities.

The DOT inspector general said the FAA is not paying enough attention to the private stations.

"Despite the increase in outsourcing, FAA concentrates its oversight of airline maintenance on work performed at the major air carriers' in-house facilities," the report said.

The trend in maintenance outsourcing documented in the DOT report comes at a time when the airline industry faces an unprecedented financial crisis due to the weak economy, the September 11, 2001, attacks and the recent SARS scare.

Many safety experts said the move to outsource repairs is a way for airlines to save money by laying off higher-cost airline union mechanics.

Federal investigators have said they are focusing on repair work done by private repair stations contracted by Air Midwest as a possible cause in the January crash of a commuter plane that killed 21 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Hey, the public wants cheap fares --- they're getting what they pay for.
 
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