AIN Blog: Torqued: Time for the FAA To Mandate English for All U.S. Airline Maintenance Work

AINonline
July 1, 2012 - 12:02am

The eagerly awaited proposed changes to the FAA’s Part 145 rules that govern repair stations domestically and abroad are finally out. Talk about years in the making! Twenty-three years if we go back to the first public hearings in 1989, a mere 13 from the 1999 issuance of the original NPRM that first proposed many of these same requirements. Without explanation, the FAA managed to lose a decade between the first public hearings and the issuance of that NPRM. My, how time flies when the FAA begins rulemaking.

Then again, I’m amazed anything ever came out of 800 Independence Ave. at all. But I’ll try to contain my enthusiasm. After all, this is just a proposal, not a final rule. Years, dare I say a decade, could still pass before a final rule. Unless, of course, the entire proposed rule gets scrubbed first. Think that can’t happen?  You may want to peruse the NPRM’s preamble: the entire last attempt at a rule change was withdrawn in 2009. That’s right, totally withdrawn. In the preamble, the FAA writes that it withdrew the 2006 proposal because “it did not adequately address the current repair station operating environment.” Well, that’s hardly surprising. It’s not exactly unforeseen that an industry as dynamic as aviation maintenance would change in the years and years that pass before a rule gets promulgated.

I know I’m digressing but since you may not all have read the proposed rule, I didn’t want you to miss out on some of the things that struck me. For example, if you happened to read my article on the FAA losing the safety high ground by failing to mandate SMS, you may appreciate my “amusement” at reading the rationale the agency gave for not including a formal quality system in the proposed rule. If you haven’t read the rationale–spoiler alert–the FAA expects that any new quality requirements would be superseded by an SMS rule for Part 145 repair stations.

If you’ve missed the humor in this: there’s not even an NPRM out for an SMS repair station rule. And if the airline SMS rule is any indication, a repair station SMS rule would drag its way through years and years of advance notices (because a notice isn’t good enough any more), regular notices (because an advance notice doesn’t remove the requirement for a notice notice), comment periods, extended comment periods. You get my point. So forgive me for not holding my breath on an SMS rule any time soon and for finding the FAA’s rationale so amusing. 

English Manuals for U.S. Aircraft

But back to the main topic of my article here: mandating English for any repair station maintenance worker working on U.S. air carrier aircraft. Notice I didn’t say working in the U.S. I mean that anyone working on a U.S. airline aircraft performing any kind of maintenance task whether under his/her own A&P certificate or working for a Part 145 repair station needs to read, write, speak and understand the English language.  

The FAA had a perfect opportunity to put the English knowledge requirement in this proposed rule but failed to do it. The proposed rule clarifies that when a repair station performs work for an airline, that work must be performed in accordance with the maintenance instructions provided by the airline. Well, if the repair station’s employees doing some or all of the maintenance work don’t know English, how are they going to perform that work? Is the airline going to translate the maintenance instructions? Is the repair station? And who is going to ensure the accuracy of the translation? (I’ve seen translations of maintenance documents performed by non-native speakers. And I’ve seen translations done by native speakers with no technical background. Either way a dangerous practice.) But if the FAA allows non-English-proficient workers, where’s the requirement for any translation at all?

While the proposed rule tightens a few sections related to the requirement to speak English, those sections apply only to supervisors, inspectors and people who approve an aircraft for return to service. Those people are already required by Part 145 to read, write and understand English. But the FAA has failed to mandate that those who actually do the maintenance work have any knowledge of English, let alone the fluency necessary to read detailed technical job cards, manuals and other maintenance instructions. Or communicate with English-speaking workers. 

Holders of A&P certificates are already required by FAR Part 65 to “write, speak and understand” English except if they’re employed outside the U.S. by airline. Well, that’s a big exception. And repair stations have no requirement for employees to speak English other than in the positions enumerated previously.

So why is it a problem for U.S. airline aircraft when the person doing the maintenance doesn’t have an appropriate knowledge of English?

For one thing, U.S. airline maintenance documents are written in English and approved/accepted by the FAA in English. I have never seen a U.S. airline with multilingual versions of its maintenance manuals, job cards and other documents necessary for the proper execution of maintenance. Or for that matter, I have never seen airlines with multi-lingual logbooks or other records required to show compliance with the maintenance requirements. And I have never seen the FAA approve or accept any versions other than English versions.

In addition, performing maintenance requires working with many overlapping manuals. Often manuals refer to other manuals or job cards refer to other documents. We have enough problems with English-speaking maintenance workers failing to refer to all the required manuals when performing maintenance work. Imagine adding a language barrier and you can easily see the problem.

So, as always when I write about the importance of English knowledge, I want to make clear that this has nothing to do with where workers are born or what country’s citizenship they hold. It’s all about the safety problems that can and do arise when maintenance workers cannot communicate clearly and effectively in the English language.

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Susan Canada
on July 25, 2012 - 4:13pm

I had the opportunity last year to work a contract job in New York as a Maintenance Programs Records Specialist. The company had purchased 747's and 767's from previous operators around the world. A lot of the documents were in the language of the operator at time of maintenance, but, in small print underneath the foreign language, there was an English translation - which made my job a whole lot easier. Also, the aircraft log books had maintenance work performed written in English. Although not ALL the documentation was in English, the majority was, and there was also an English reference to other work that had been performed.
I think some may have been translated due to the sale of the aircraft, but much of it was part of the original documentation

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