The Transportation Security Administration is gearing up to begin inspecting airplane shops all over the world, an effort aimed at stopping potential sabotage and theft of U.S. planes.
The new rules announced on Friday will put TSA in the business of inspecting airport-based repair stations, finally satisfying a mandate that Congress first issued 10 years ago because of fears that terrorists could steal an unattended plane or sabotage one while it is being repaired.
However, the TSA in its final rule announced Friday exempted repair facilities that aren't near airports. The agency said it looked into the risks for those stations and decided they "represent a minimal risk to aviation security."
The Federal Aviation Administration already monitors facilities that work on U.S.-registered planes, but its focus is more on making sure work at those stations meets U.S. standards. However, there have been worries that terrorists could steal a plane or plant a bomb in one.
The new rule also ends a moratorium that had kept FAA from authorizing new overseas stations.
The rules cover some 4,100 U.S. and 700 foreign repair stations. The TSA couldn't immediately say how many of those facilities are at or near airports. The stations include everything from those in cavernous hangars where whole planes are repaired or interiors renovated, down to small shops where seat belts are repaired. Airlines used to do most of that work themselves, but over the past decade they have aimed to save money by shifting work to third-party facilities, many of them overseas.
TSA said the rule gives it the authority to inspect repair shops in the U.S. and abroad, although international inspections will only happen in consultation with that country's government. That has caused worries that repair shops will be tipped off about pending inspections.
Besides inspections, TSA said it will monitor some stations by asking them questions over the phone or sending in paperwork to be audited.
Unions criticized the new rules, which will be published Monday, as being too weak. Unions have been pushing for tighter regulation of overseas stations, where work is often performed by non-union workers.
The AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department said the rule's security measures are "limited and weak" and criticized the focus on repair stations near airports. Security issues go beyond facilities near airports, said AFL-CIO transportation head Edward Wytkind.
The Aeronautical Repair Station Association said the final rule is "significantly narrower in scope" from the TSA's planned rule issued in 2009. The trade group said that the rule allows repair shops to make planes secure just by removing their fuel or locking them in hangars.