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Sunday, April 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Firms battle FAA over drug testing

Seattle Times business reporter

Approximately once a month, a portable drug- and alcohol-testing lab arrives at the 64,000-square-foot Kent facility that houses Pacific Propeller International (PPI).

Workplace Systems, an independent testing consortium that PPI pays a $1,000 annual fee plus $20 per test, selects a handful of employees at random to provide breath and urine samples. The lab screens the samples to ensure PPI's workers are clean and sober, per government mandate.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required aircraft-repair shops to administer drug tests to employees who perform "safety-sensitive" work since 1990; it added alcohol tests in 1995.

PPI maintains and overhauls high-tech propellers that power both short-range commercial aircraft and military transports, so President Jeff Heikke accepts the tests as a necessary cost of doing business.

Though the expense is not onerous, Heikke said, the program requires extensive recordkeeping and is frequently audited.

"It's quite a bit of paperwork and dotting of i's," Heikke said.

Now the FAA wants to extend its drug-testing program, and PPI is not pleased.

The 60-year-old company is one of four plaintiffs suing the federal government to block a rule change that the aircraft-repair industry thinks will create "a drug- and alcohol-testing regime that is irrational, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious."

An FAA regulation slated to take effect Monday would require that any subcontractors hired by repair stations start testing workers who handle "safety-sensitive" tasks.

"The testing should follow the work," said Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman.

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The agency put its motives more starkly in federal documents: "Only one link in the safety chain would have to fail for an accident to occur."

Backing up its concerns, the FAA said around 18,000 maintenance workers tested positive for drugs in the first 15 years of the program. Roughly 540 other workers tested positive for alcohol from 1995 to 2004.

PPI, the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) and their supporters counter that testing subcontractors will add onerous costs and bureaucracy but do nothing to improve safety.

"It's a silly rule," Heikke said. "It's really affecting vendors that have no airworthiness content."

What's more, they say, the new rule could cause U.S. airlines to outsource more work to foreign repair stations, since FAA drug and alcohol rules do not apply to maintenance shops outside the U.S.

The FAA gave the industry a reprieve last week. Though the rule takes effect Monday, the agency extended the "implementation date" until Oct. 10 to give subcontractors more time to figure out what work qualifies as "safety-sensitive."

In the meantime, the federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., will review the suit filed by PPI, two other repair stations and ARSA seeking to have the new language thrown out altogether.

Boeing is a member of ARSA but is not taking part in the lawsuit.

"We do sympathize with those businesses that may be impacted financially by this ruling," said Cindy Wall, a Boeing spokeswoman. The company hopes the FAA and ARSA can work out an agreement that supports airplane safety and minimizes costs, she said.

Boeing operates four repair stations, including one at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Shifting realities

The new rules are an attempt by the FAA to keep pace with the rapidly shifting realities of the airline industry.

U.S. carriers have been under incessant pressure to cut costs in recent years, as first the terrorist attacks of 2001 sapped demand and then soaring fuel prices vaporized their profits.

Many concluded it was too expensive to maintain and repair their own planes. They laid off mechanics, shuttered hangars and sent their jets to third-party repair stations, such as PPI or Goodrich Aviation Services in Everett.

The outside repair stations, in turn, hired subcontractors.

The FAA noticed the trend years ago. Since January 2002, it has been trying to ensure that anyone working on airplanes or airplane parts, regardless of who pays them, is subject to drug and alcohol tests.

The airlines and the independent repair stations have fought an expansion of the testing rules. They contend a new layer of drug and alcohol testing would be superfluous. One of their strongest arguments: Only repair stations and mechanics that have been certificated by the FAA can inspect repairs and certify that a plane or parts are ready to return to the air.

And all FAA-certificated repair stations already have drug- and alcohol-testing programs.

The repair group wrote in its formal comments to the FAA that the proposed rule would require its members "to look behind the end result to the person who performed maintenance, no matter how insignificant the job or how far removed from the aircraft."

ARSA also said no crashes or other accidents have been blamed on drug or alcohol use by subcontractors.

FAA countered with a simple argument: Why risk it?

"We do not believe we should wait until there is actual loss of human life ... before expanding the testing requirement," the agency wrote in January.

Who should pay?

No one in the aviation industry wants to be perceived as soft on air safety. Yet the repair industry would bear the costs of any new drug- and alcohol-testing requirements.

Another concern is that subcontractors for whom aviation is just a small sliver of their overall business might choose to exit the industry, rather than bear the burden of instituting drug and alcohol tests.

Already, said Heikke, two of PPI's 10 subcontractors have decided not to do work for the company because of the imminent testing requirements.

The 65-employee firm also is worried about losing customers to foreign rivals.

On its Web site, PPI touts itself as the "largest independent propeller repair and overhaul facility in the world," but it is not the only one.

Mike Thornton, PPI's quality-assurance manager, said the company's chief competitors include one domestic repair station, Aircraft Propeller Service in Wheeling, Ill., and three outside the U.S. — Hamilton Sundstrand in the Netherlands; ST Aerospace in Singapore, and Standard Aero in Winnipeg, Ontario.

The FAA drug- and alcohol-testing mandates do not apply to foreign maintenance providers, eliminating a significant expense.

"All this does is place an additional burden on domestic repair stations, the repair-station subcontractors, and provides competitive advantages for our foreign repair-station competition," Thornton wrote in PPI comments to the FAA.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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