Part 145 rewrite isn’t the feared lion

 - November 27, 2007, 6:21 AM

Aviation is an industry where the various factions often have nothing in common beyond the air in which they travel. But there is something that operators of Cessna 152s, Learjets and Boeing 747s have in common–maintenance. When the FAA announced an update of Part 145 repair stations was in the offing, the industry turned out in full force, filing hundreds of comments about the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM).

The NPRM had a definite Part 121 flavor that sent a chill throughout general aviation. “There was a heavy union feel to it,” the manager of one repair station said. “The extensive training requirements before anyone can sign anything off were very airline oriented. They send their people to highly specialized schools. We could never afford that type of program. We’d go out of business.” In fact, the NPRM included several provisions that would have significantly increased the bureaucratic burden on smaller repair stations without yielding a significant safety benefit.

AOPA wrote, in its comments about the NPRM, “These rules might make sense for large repair stations working on transport-category aircraft, but they’re overkill for the typical GA maintenance shop employing five or six technicians.”

In the end, when Part 145 rewrite was issued last month, most of the alphabet groups got what they wanted. The consensus is that the new Part 145 isn’t as bad as most thought it would be and it contains some positive aspects.

Walter Desrosier, director of maintenance and engineering for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), said, “In general we were disappointed to see the final rule come out. We would have preferred the FAA issue a supplemental NPRM. We could have refined the rule better and the two large components cut out [repair station ratings and a quality assurance program] could have been completed this time around.” Most of the people interviewed would have preferred the FAA to issue it as a supplemental NPRM, but aside from that issue the comments on the new Part 145 tended to be positive.

Eric Byer, manager of legislative affairs for the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), said, “Overall we’re pleased with the final rule. We opposed mandatory incorporation of a quality-assurance system, and that was not included in the final rule. NATA is also pleased with the removal of the ratings system. The FAA has indicated that it will revisit both areas in the future, something we look forward to working on in hopes of reaching an agreement.”

In its comments regarding changing the rating system for repair stations, the FAA wrote, “There is no change from current FAR 145.31 ratings. Comments on the proposal were mixed. Some found the proposed new system confusing and complicated. Others stated that the proposal is more restrictive. Although many commenters believe a separate rulemaking action is not necessary, the FAA finds that the comments and alternatives received have merit and should be considered further before a new system is adopted. Therefore, this final rule retains the current rating and class system.”

Quality Assurance
Mike Mertens, chief inspector and FAA liaison for Lincoln, Neb.-based Duncan Aviation, said the quality-analysis component in the original NPRM was tied to the FAA’s proposed Part 66, which would have dealt with the aviation maintenance technician concept. “When that regulation died it pretty much negated what the FAA proposed in the Part 145 NPRM,” he said.

“Most reputable repair stations have a quality-assurance program already anyway,” said Aeronautical Repair Station Association’s (ARSA) Ken Harmon. As vice president of quality management for the Nordam Group and president of ARSA, he said he was sure the FAA would again revisit quality-assurance in the future based on the comments already submitted. “The problem is that it has to be workable for all sizes and types of operation.”

“Look, we have a total of 11 full-time and two part-time technicians, with one administrative staff member,” said Rob Lenert, avionics manager of Hartford, Conn.-based VIP Avionics. Lenert, the winner of the FAA’s 2000 Avionics Technician of the Year award, said dropping the section on quality assurance was a good thing.

“We’re too small to be able to afford to handle all the paperwork required to do it the way the FAA envisioned it in the NPRM,” he said. “What’s important is the integrity of the individual. You can have all the systems in place you want, but if the individual has no integrity it doesn’t matter. For some it’s a matter of getting the job done and out the door. We make a real point of stressing if there’s anything that’s not right we have to bring it to the attention of the client. It’s not always good news for them, but that’s the only way to do business safely. We don’t need a complex FAA-mandated quality-assurance program to do that.”

“The truth is that most places are probably doing quality assurance within their facilities and don’t even realize it,” Desrosier said. “Quality assurance is simply approaching quality from a systemic point of view. Documented procedures, people focused on the quality-control process and so on. The concern is if a program is required, what will be the actual requirements?”

The NPRM proposed a quality-assurance system requirement but said the actual requirements would be in an as-yet-unpublished advisory circular. “What industry was saying at the time is that we wanted to develop that AC in advance and look at the whole package before passing judgment,” Desrosier said.

But NATA looked at it from a slightly different perspective. “NATA opposed the mandatory use of a quality-assurance system,” Byer said. “The development and use of a quality-assurance system is a proactive business decision and outside the scope of an aviation safety regulation. There’s no indication that a quality-assurance system is any more effective in locating defects than a properly
administered quality-control program. A quality-assurance system does not ensure airworthiness, so the association recommended deletion of the provision.”

New Additions
One new requirement that does show up in the new regulation is the “accountable manager.” The FAA disagreed with commenters that the “accountable manager” should be removed saying, “The FAA has determined that it is necessary for a repair station to have one individual who is responsible for ensuring repair station operations are conducted in accordance with Part 145. The FAA has revised the clarify that the person is responsible for and has authority over only repair station operations. It was not the intent of the FAA to impose personal liability on the accountable manager. The FAA notes that the definition states the accountable manager will serve as the primary contact with the FAA.”

Another major issue that was significantly changed from the NPRM was the use of subcontractors. The final rule states that repair stations that contract maintenance functions to other certified repair stations will not be required to survey those contractors. The rule requires a certified repair station to qualify and survey only noncertified people who perform maintenance functions for the repair station. The NPRM would have required oversight of all subcontractors imposing a major burden on repair stations.

Duncan’s Mertens said the new regulation also opens the possibility for satellite facilities. “I’m really pleased that there’s finally a possibility for true satellite facilities,” he said. “Now it will be possible to have a single certificate cover multiple facilities. Until now each facility had to have its own FAA approval.”

The major problem has been that a repair station could open a facility located in another FSDO’s jurisdiction, only to discover local interpretation of regulations and policies conflicted with the interpretation by the FSDO in control of the parent company. Such ambiguity is common throughout the FAA in all areas; it stems from the relatively high degree of autonomy given to the individual FSDO.

Also included in the new regulation is a training requirement. Previously the regulation made broad statements about personnel being required to stay current on acceptable practices and being qualified to work on specific components, but there was no training requirement other than that required of anyone working on FAR 121 airline aircraft.

“The biggest concern with the training program requirement is ambiguity,” ARSA’s Harmon said. “There’s no guidance telling me what’s actually required. Until we have guidance material, this aspect of the regulation is in limbo. It actually goes into effect 20 months from the date of issuance of the final rule, then you have two years to be in compliance.”

Brian Finnegan, president of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA), said the training component is something he was particularly pleased to discover. “I think every repair station should have a training program. True, the standards have yet to be published, but I’ve been reassured we can expect that information before the training program portion of the regulation becomes effective. PAMA is a strong proponent of mandatory continuous education, recurrency training and professional development…I am pleased to see the FAA take such a leadership role.”

Setting New Standards
Yet another new requirement is a repair station manual. According to the regulation, the manual must include an organizational chart identifying each management position with authority to act on behalf of the repair station; the area of responsibility assigned to each management position; and the duties, responsibilities and authority of each. While this manual will no doubt require substantial man-hours to develop, write and be approved by the FAA, subsequent revisions and updates shouldn’t be as tedious. 

According to the regulation, unlike the approval process, the FAA will not require approval of manual revisions. The operator will only have to present them to the inspector.

One area of general agreement was electronic signatures. “It’s about time the FAA got around to approving the use of electronic signatures,” one mechanic said. Desrosier agreed, saying, “I think what was issued as a final rule is good as far as it goes. It updated some things like electronic signatures.”

Andy Cebula, AOPA’s senior vice president of government and technical affairs, weighed in on the issue of cost. “Under the FAA’s original proposal, general aviation aircraft owners could have been hit with maintenance price increases of 30 percent or more,” he said. “But the FAA responded to most of AOPA’s concerns, changing the parts of the proposal that would have had the greatest economic effect.”

Cebula continued, “Repair station regulations haven’t changed in almost 40 years. The aviation industry has advanced substantially since then. This rule sets new standards for everything from personnel training to required facilities to record keeping.” He pointed out that the new regulation would still increase costs for repair stations, but “those increases will likely be limited to about 5 percent.”

Compared with the original NPRM, the actual regulation has essentially leveled the playing field. Gone were most of the large repair station-oriented rules. Duncan’s Mertens said, “I think general aviation pretty much got everything it asked for. It’s a decent regulation. No one is penalized the way it reads now.”