The FAA’s requirement that business aircraft operators obtain letters of authorization (LOAs) for flight in reduced vertical separation minimum (RVSM) airspace is causing not only enormous wastes of fuel but safety problems as well, according to feedback from AIN readers. Other operations require LOAs such as PRnav, BRnav, RNP, MNPS, ADS-B and maintenance authorizations such as the MEL, but extended delays by the FAA in approving RVSM LOAs are presenting serious safety and environmental issues, according to operators and NBAA.
LOAs do serve a useful purpose, according to James Albright, a Gulfstream pilot and author of the highly regarded Code7700 website, which provides detailed explanations of a huge variety of business aviation subjects. Albright summarized the LOA requirement in a recent article on Code7700 (http://code7700.com/loa.html#references), pointing out that LOAs are needed when there is some type of operation that isn’t covered by existing regulations. Updates of the regulations lag the introduction of new technology significantly, so LOAs fill the gap. For commercial operators, the corresponding tool is the Operations Specification (OpSpec). According to Albright, “You don’t need an LOA to fly an airplane, but you will probably need an LOA to fly in certain airspace, use certain technology or do something above and beyond what is covered by your particular part of 14 CFR.”
Simple Signoffs Drag Out
Early this year the FAA agreed to a streamlined process to handle RVSM LOA approvals, but for the operator of a Falcon 50 that is not the case. He told AIN that he has been waiting since April for an RVSM LOA. The LOA application is the simplest kind possible. This operator runs a small aircraft management company with fewer than a dozen aircraft, and this Falcon 50 was already under his company’s management. The LOA application was required because the Falcon 50 was sold to a new owner, but it is flown by the same pilots and maintained by the same technicians. Only the owner’s name had changed. As of August 18, the local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) was still sitting on the Falcon’s LOA application.
Because the LOA hasn’t been approved, this operator can fly the Falcon 50 at FL290 or lower or at FL430 or above. On a hot day, a Falcon 50 struggles at FL430. “The other day ISA was +10,” he told AIN, “and we are just hanging there at 43,000 at about Mach 0.72. If we had turbulence we could have had an upset. We’re right there in the coffin corner. Somebody is going to get hurt.”
On another recent flight in the Falcon, “There was a line of storms in front of us. We’re at FL290. They couldn’t let us climb, and I was about to declare an emergency. I’m not going to run my airplane through a hailstorm. It’s turbulent and the passengers are wondering what’s going on.”
When forced to fly below FL290, the Falcon burns 60 percent more fuel, he said. The company’s three Hawkers have a maximum altitude of FL410, and LOA delays with those forced some flights to down to lower altitudes. “We had one trip in a Hawker before it received its RVSM LOA,” he added, “and they got the crap kicked out of them. Bobbing and weaving [to avoid thunderstorms] over Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska in the springtime, you’re going to get your [butt] kicked.” The Hawker burns about 1,600 pph at FL370, but below FL290 the flow climbs to more than 2,000 pph.
For long-range flights in the Falcon, this operator puts on the minimum amount of fuel to fly safety at FL430 for as far as possible. But flying around without extra fuel is anathema to this former Air Force pilot. “It’s legal. We’re not doing anything we shouldn’t do, but going across country, why not take as much fuel as you can? Fill the sucker up and fly at 37,000; that’s where the airplane is meant to fly.” More often, he has to make an extra fuel stop or stops. “It’s impossible to go to Hawaii or to Europe without making a bunch of fuel stops. It just doesn’t make sense.”
What bothers him is that the new owner of the Falcon 50 can’t understand why “yesterday we flew at 37,000 feet within 1,000 feet of 100 different airplanes perfectly. The next day the ownership changes and now it can’t do that.”
He believes that some pilots are simply ignoring the prohibition against flying in RVSM airspace with an LOA. “There are no RVSM police out there,” he said. “Who’s to say you don’t have an LOA? Every time I’ve been ramped nobody asked what altitude I flew at.”
FAA leadership clearly doesn’t understand the consequences of delays in LOA approvals, he added. “Do they really understand the challenges and the risk they are imposing on the fleet when they do this? They get all upset because a pilot hasn’t had 10 hours of rest, but nobody is concerned when you force an airplane to fly through bad weather. Somebody needs to surface this issue as a real safety concern. That’s the only thing that gets people’s attention.”
Agency’s ‘Last Priority’
On July 23, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen submitted testimony on this subject to the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on aviation. “Operator authorizations remain one of the biggest issues for NBAA members,” Bolen explained. “NBAA members have for years expressed concerns with the timelines and requirements to obtain a letter of authorization (LOA) for RVSM airspace operations.” He emphasized that “long timelines have a direct impact on safety, the environment and overall cost of operations.” While Bolen acknowledged the FAA’s new policy that resulted from the industry-FAA RVSM LOA Process Enhancement Team, he explained that other LOAs besides RVSM approval still need to be addressed. The new policy is summarized in FAA Order 8900.1, Volume 4, Chapter 10, Section 1, Paragraph 4-1237- C.
However, operators still report that RVSM LOAs are not being processed quickly, even those that involve a simple name or N-number change. The management company owner mentioned above told AIN that one inspector told him that RVSM LOAs “‘are our last priority.’ The FAA came out with this process but didn’t give FSDOs any money or people to deal with it,” he said.
One company CEO told AIN that he changed the name of the company that owns his jet. He admits that he flew a month in RVSM airspace before notifying his FSDO. “After being told that my LOA had been voided with the name change and that I could be subject to a violation for each flight into RVSM airspace, my POI [principal operations inspector] instructed me to send him the new documentation package.”
He mistakenly, it turns out, covered the old company name with a label carrying the new name and logo on every header of each page of his RVSM operations and maintenance manual. It took “several weeks” for the FSDO to reject his application. So he reproduced the manual with headers containing the new company name and resubmitted the application.
More weeks went by before he received a letter from his FSDO saying that because the aircraft was registered to his company with an address in Nevada, the application needed to be made at a Nevada FSDO. Never mind that his company has operated for many years in Texas.
He submitted the paperwork to a Nevada FSDO and weeks passed before the Nevada FSDO finally acknowledged having received the RVSM package. But then it took a few more weeks for the FSDO to tell him that, sorry, this needs to be handled by the Texas FSDO because the aircraft is based in Texas. Finally, and more weeks later, the CEO got the two FSDO inspectors on the phone together and agreeing that the Texas FSDO would handle the RVSM LOA.
“Ultimately, my LOA was reissued with the proper corporate name but identical in every other respect to the previous LOA,” he told AIN. The kicker is that I had to avoid RVSM airspace for more than one year because I changed the name of my company that owned the aircraft, which resulted in a very significant cost to me by not flying more economical altitudes and the resulting reduction in range necessitating additional fuel stops. This is a broken FAA system that unnecessarily consumes FAA resources and aircraft owner/operator dollars.”
He estimated that the fuel wasted during that year of flying below FL290 amounted to 7,312 gallons.
The FAA’s vision, clearly stated on its website, is: “We strive to reach the next level of safety, efficiency, environmental responsibility and global leadership. We are accountable to the American public and our stakeholders.” AIN called three FSDOs to ask about LOA delays and workloads, but was handed off to the FAA’s public relations office. Inquiries to one regional FAA public relations office and to the FAA headquarters public relations office were not answered as of August 18.
Other operators responded to AIN’s request for feedback on LOA approval delays, and AIN will report on those and any new information in the October issue.