If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again

With the lack of general aviation maintenance representation in the alphabet soup of Washington, D.C., the Aircraft Electronics Association requested that we reprint the following information from Ric Peri, vice president, Government & Industry Affairs, to help the GA maintenance shops better understand what the FAA is proposing and how it will affect their businesses:

The author of this quote, William Hickson, was a 19th century British educational writer. Yet, living in the present, perhaps the famous quote from W.C. Fields is more appropriate — “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”

After 20 years of trying and three changes in 10 years, the FAA’s latest proposal for Part 145 repair station ratings, while well intended, is simply ill-timed, too costly, and takes dead aim at the avionics industry. But, the FAA keeps trying — some of it is good, some bad and some is simply a cheap shell game.

The FAA states that “this action is necessary because many portions of the existing repair station regulations do not reflect current repair station aircraft maintenance and business practices, or advances in aircraft technology.”

Here’s a good question: Is the agency amending the regulations to better reflect current business practices, or is it amending the regulations to control the businesses? It appears to be a little of both, but leaning toward the latter.

Does it make sense to change the airframe rating to an aircraft rating? Now, the agency is not directly proposing this, but it is talking around it. In reality, it is simply proposing to change the airframe rating to an aircraft rating, while retaining the “airframe” title.

The FAA defines an airframe as “the fuselage, booms, nacelles, cowlings, fairings, airfoil surfaces (including rotors but excluding propellers and rotating airfoils of engines), and landing gear of an aircraft and their accessories and controls.” So, an airframe-rated repair station would be limited to maintenance on these specific systems and subsystems. Part 145 Appendix A (removed in 2001, but still valid) supports that an airframe shop is limited to physical fuselage, and includes electric wiring systems and the installation of instruments and accessories. So, for an aircraft shop to be able to offer “full service” to its customers, it must have airframe, powerplant, propeller, accessory, radio and instrument ratings just to provide full service, on-wing maintenance for the entire aircraft.

The breakdown of ratings does help allow the FAA to manage its resources; it can align staffing to the number of certificates and ratings held by its constituents. But it adds little value to the repair station, and making the shift from airframe to aircraft makes sense for these types of businesses. The FAA defines aircraft as “a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air.” So, without restriction, a full-service aircraft-rated repair station could maintain specific aircraft types including all installed systems, provided, of course, that the facility has (and documented evidence of) the housing, facilities, equipment, material, technical data, processes and trained personnel in place to perform the work on the article. The six ratings a full-service facility currently needs would be reduced to one rating with the five additional capabilities being listed on the operation specifications. The Aircraft Electronics Association supported this logic as a member of the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee, and we are disappointed the agency didn’t propose this clear, logical and business-friendly improvement.

On the other hand, the FAA is proposing to make drastic changes that have a direct and detrimental effect on the avionics industry. I believe this is a case of either ignorance of the industry or simply missing the trees for the forest — focusing on the big picture and missing the individuals.

Currently, an avionics shop can have full radio authority with two ratings (radio and airframe) and full avionics ratings by adding a third rating (instrument). A March 2012 legal interpretation even questions the need for the airframe rating. But, for the sake of argument, we’ll include the airframe for now. With these three ratings and appropriate limitation on their operations specification, an avionics shop can install and maintain radios and instruments, both on-wing and on the bench. This is a very pro-business approach. The proposal, on the other hand, is a very anti-avionics business approach. The proposal transfers the lack of efficiency of the current full-service aircraft maintenance shops to the avionics industry by making the rating system illogical and inefficient. The proposal would require the current three-rating avionics shop to hold no less than six ratings: Category 1, 2 and 3 airframe as well as component ratings for radio, instrument and avionics. This is illogical and inefficient. In today’s digital age, there is no reason to make this shift. We need to retain the foundation we currently have in the avionics sector with some tune-ups.

On the negative side, the modern integrated avionics suites are not clearly defined by the regulations, guidance or policy. I agree that the radio and instrument “classes” may not be the best definitions for modern equipment, but the legacy equipment still exists. I suspect the avionics industry could make some pretty sound recommendations for better definitions of modern classes while retaining the appropriate legacy classes, but the FAA never asked. Actually, in a roundabout way, the FAA argues that it did ask through the general “request for comments,” but only in the bigger rulemaking activity.

As an example of the agency’s attempt to regulate business in its image, the FAA is proposing to define avionics. In the proposal, the agency defines avionics as “articles generally associated with the processing of digital electrical signals. Examples include: radios, navigation equipment, radar, data processors and cathode ray tubes.” What happened to the rest of the legacy equipment? Oh, and the instruments?

In the agency’s defense, and perhaps explaining its logic, we have anecdotally included radios, instruments and flight control equipment in the overarching understanding of what avionics systems include. However, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines avionics as “electronics designed for use in aerospace vehicles.” And, Cambridge Dictionaries defines avionics as “the science and technology of the electronic devices used in aeronautics and astronautics.” I think the Cambridge definition is a bit more thorough. It takes a pretty good search before you can actually find an FAA document that includes instruments and flight control systems as part of avionics. I suggest this may be a practically correct definition of avionics. FAA publication FAA-P-8740-18 defines avionics as “a term used to describe electronics equipment in aircraft. It includes radios, instruments, and flight control equipment (i.e., autopilots) and all of the components required to make up each individual system.”

I would suggest that avionics include electronic devices, such as radios, instruments and integrated systems, as well as mechanical systems used to show visually or aurally the attitude, altitude or operation of an aircraft or aircraft part.

And, for the government “shell game” — watch the hands and let’s see where the “capability list” lands.

According to the NPRM, the FAA received more than 150 public comment submissions to the 2006 NPRM. While there was general support for revising the repair station rules, several comments asked the FAA to withdraw the proposal. Many other comments expressed concerns related to the proposed ratings system (particularly the proposed avionics rating), capability list, quality system, letter of compliance, chief inspector, housing and facilities.

Yes, but if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The rating changes proposed in the 2006 NPRM generated many comments. Most of those comments expressed concern that the proposed system of ratings would require a repair station to get FAA approval before changing or adding to the proposed required capability list. This proposal would not require a capability list, but it would revise the capability list recording requirements for those repair stations that choose to use one.

So, let’s make the “capability list” optional. The FAA proposes that “a certificated repair station may establish and maintain a capability list.” Notice the word “may.” It is optional, and the FAA is not mandating a capability list. But, you better watch those shells…. where is the capability list, and what shell is it under?

Under the operations specifications shell (oops, proposal), we find:

If the optional capability list provided for in § 145.1215 is not used, each certificate holder’s operations specifications must, within the rating categories authorized under § 145.1059, identify each airframe, powerplant, or propeller by manufacturer, model and series as applicable. For a component rating, the operations specifications must identify each component or appliance included in the rating by manufacturer, manufacturer-designated nomenclature and basic part number.

Clearly, the agency is trying to play a shell game with a repair station’s capabilities. A repair station’s capabilities will be required to be documented, either on a self-maintained capability list or an agency-kept ops spec listing, but don’t be confused by the shell game. The FAA is once again proposing an administratively burdensome requirement for each repair station to document the repair station’s capabilities by manufacturer, model and series (for type certificated products) or manufacturer, manufacturer-designated nomenclature and basic part number (for components) of each item they are capable of maintaining.

Then, add to that a proposal for a periodic review of the capability list, which must be accomplished at least every two years to determine if it is current. If the 2006 proposal was deemed to be too problematic, let’s shift the shells around, change the wording and hope the public is distracted.

This is not the time to be distracted. Some of the proposal is solid and better business, but most of the proposal is detrimental to the avionics industry. And, in nearly all cases, the FAA is simply trying again.

Remember, your comments are due on or before Aug. 20, 2012.

Reprinted with permission from the July 2012 issue of Avionics News Magazine, a monthly publication of the Aircraft Electronics Association.

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