Eight years after the 9/11 attacks brought a new focus on security at airplane maintenance facilities, and six years after Congress first required action, the government still hasn't tightened its vigilance.
Concerned that terrorists might use a repair station to sabotage airliners, Congress in 2003 passed a law ordering the Transportation Security Administration to come up with security requirements for repair facilities, and gave the agency eight months to do it.
In 2007, after no rule had materialized, Congress again passed a law ordering TSA to put security requirements in place within one year. That deadline expired in August 2008.
This week, faced with a congressional hearing Wednesday on the issue, TSA finally posted a proposed rule to its Web site rather than wait for publication in the Federal Register. Officials acknowledged they wanted to get it out ahead of the hearing.
It's still not a done deal.
Industry and other interested parties will have 60 days to comment on the proposal once it's published, and there is no telling when it will take effect. It's not unusual for there to be a gap of months or years between the proposal of a regulation and issuance of a final rule.
Aviation maintenance and security experts who reviewed TSA's proposal told The Associated Press that it prescribes the kind of security program common in industry and throughout government: A qualified security program chief, photo identification for employees, controlled access to airplanes and parts, a secure facility or property perimeter and background checks of employees.
"These (security) concerns are not new, they have long known been known by the government. Why it has taken so long for them to act defies logic," said John Goglia, who was the first Federal Aviation Administration-certified mechanic to serve on the National Transportation Safety Board.
TSA could have at anytime copied the generally tight security programs in place in the European Union, he said.
So far there haven't been any incidents involving U.S. airliners that have been tied to security lapses at repair stations, but safety experts said the lack of security standards remains a glaring concern.
TSA spokesman Greg Soule said it took time for the agency to craft a rule that takes into account the diversity of the 4,100 domestic and 700 foreign repair stations certified to work on U.S.-registered aircraft. The stations range from small businesses that are miles from airports and work on specialized parts like seatbelts to huge hangars and warehouses inside airport grounds.
He said the agency already provides guidance to repair stations on security "best practices," but can't inspect or certify their security programs without regulations setting standards for them to meet.
Airlines used to perform nearly all the major maintenance and repair work on their planes at their own facilities using their own mechanics, electricians and other workers. Over the last two decades, though, airlines have increasingly outsourced the work to private repair stations that use cheaper, nonunion labor. A survey released last year by Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel found that nine major airlines outsource about 70 percent of their major maintenance work, with more than a quarter of the work performed at foreign repair stations, from China to Singapore to El Salvador.
Lawmakers and labor unions complain that the non-airline repair facilities don't get as much oversight as in-house shops. They say that's especially true of foreign repair stations, where it's more difficult _ and sometimes impossible _ for FAA to conduct surprise inspections. In some countries, because of privacy laws or incomplete record keeping, thorough screening of mechanics and other repair station employees can be difficult. Extending that screening to subcontractors who supply parts and services can be even more daunting.
Even at U.S. repair stations, checking the backgrounds of workers native to countries that don't readily share information like Cuba and Yemen has raised concern.
The government doesn't have the kind of regulatory regime in place to track security through the international maze of contractors and subcontractors that has developed in recent years, said Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department.
"If you don't have standards in place that set the bar at a high level of what you expect these facilities to do in the safety and security arena, you are sort of leaving it to chance that you might have bad apple, you might have shabby practices or, God forbid, you have a security breech," Wytkind said.
FAA certification of new repair stations has been frozen since last year, when TSA missed its second congressional deadline.
Industry officials say security fears are overblown. They say many repair stations, including foreign stations, are within the secure perimeters of airports. They also say there are more FAA-certified repair stations in Europe, where security standards are generally high, than in any other region outside the U.S.
"You hear that it's a wild West out there, but it really isn't," said Matt Hallett, director of government affairs at the Aeronautical Repair Station Association. "This is an industry that takes security and safety very, very seriously. It hasn't sat idly by waiting for TSA."
On the Net:
Transportation Security Administration http://www.tsa.gov/assets/pdf/nprm(underscore)aircraftrepair.pdf
(This version CORRECTS in 13th paragraph to El Salvador.)