FAA mulls changing insulation standards

 - October 19, 2006, 7:17 AM

The FAA is considering amending its controversial rule upgrading flammability standards for thermal and acoustic insulation. The industry wasted no time in letting the agency know of its concern about the unexpected scope of the rule–which became effective on September 2–with the result that the agency has already taken steps to mitigate the burden on business aircraft owners and operators.

At about the same time the rule was going into effect, representatives from several associations met with the FAA to discuss the new regulations, believing they pose “a serious threat to continued operation after September 2 of many in-service Part 25 [certified] aircraft.” The meeting, attended by representatives from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), NBAA and several other trade groups, raised concerns that the application of new rule is “broader than originally intended.”

The associations explained, “It has long been understood that the requirements of the final rules would apply solely to thermal and acoustic blankets installed in Part 25 airplanes.” However, they continued, in corresponding guidance material released June 24 “it became clear that the rule was being applied to every insulating material in the fuselage of every Part 25 airplane (both old and new) and every piece of installed equipment with insulation.”

Based on the feedback the associations received from business aircraft operators, the FAA has developed an “action plan” to ease the burden of the requirements of the rule for the “immediate short term,” said a GAMA official. The FAA sent Flight Standards Airworthiness (FSAW) Bulletins 05-09 and 05-10 (September 1 and 7, respectively) to field inspectors to guide them in the application of the retroactive portion of the rule– Part 91.613(b)(1) and 135.170(c)(1). The bulletins “give inspectors a better understanding of the rule and provide clarification on the scope,” according to the GAMA official.

First, the bulletins make it clear that the new flammability requirements for thermal and acoustic insulation apply only to material “installed in the fuselage of transport-category airplanes.” The rule applies only when insulation is being replaced, but “the insulation that is inaccessible in flight is what should be the focus of compliance.” The FAA determined that insulation accessible in flight “can be readily extinguished and therefore this insulation material does not have to meet Part 25.856” (the new flammability certification standards).

Secondly, insulation installed and signed off before September 2 is not affected, “even if the airplane is not back in service until after September 2.” Insulation taken from an airplane that is in maintenance to support an airplane in service “is not considered a replacement and therefore is not required to comply” with the requirement. What’s more, insulation that is removed from the airplane or from a component of the airplane “for purposes of maintenance or inspection and then reinstalled is not subject to the regulation.”

Specific items covered by the rule include insulation inside ovens, carts, refrigerator meal boxes and coffee makers. Insulation “visible in the cabin” is considered compliant. Insulation not in the fuselage is not covered by the rule. Such areas “include the empennage, wheel wells and wing-to-body fairings.”

The guidance provided in the bulletins reduces some of the burden on aircraft owners and operators, “particularly the evaluation that must occur for the operator to determine if the part that they are looking at replacing is affected by the rule or not,” said the GAMA official. “Without the guidance in these FSAW bulletins, you would have to make that determination on virtually every part. The bulletin narrows down significantly the number of times you have to make that evaluation.”

But the bulletins do not address all the serious concerns. “The root of our concern and the comment we had is that once an operator determines that a part is affected by this new rule, there might be no place to get the part,” lamented the GAMA official. “An OEM either has a part because it has already redesigned it to meet the new flammability rule in new aircraft, or it hasn’t developed one for that particular aircraft. The company can make it, but it might take weeks.” Until then, the aircraft stays on the ground.

GAMA anticipates that the aftermarket suppliers will also be caught short. “Repair stations, outfitters, PMAs and other vendors were not aware of the scope of the rule and therefore didn’t prepare by making new materials to meet the regulation. If an OEM hasn’t made a part that meets a particular application, the vendor must test and obtain certification if it is to market the part,” the official explained.

What makes the problem even more challenging is that business aircraft typically have much more acoustic insulation than airliners. As GAMA noted, there would be no problem if the rule were directed at thermal blanket insulation. Blankets that meet the new rule are readily available because all of the OEMs are using those materials in their current production aircraft.

The next significant step to reduce the burden on the replacement aspects of the rule is to revise the rule. According to GAMA, the FAA is going to amend the rule “to limit the applicability of the replacement parts portion of the rule to something the FAA says is much more doable in the field for all operators.”

In a September 1 letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, the industry asked for a 180-day extension of the compliance date specifically for the replacement portion of the new rule. “The extension would provide time for the FAA and industry to reevaluate the effect [of the rule] and thus to identify appropriate corrective regulatory measures.”

An FAA spokesman would say only that the agency is “considering” revised rules and wouldn’t comment on what specific amendments are under consideration. GAMA believes “the safety benefit of the new insulation materials is primarily in the large blankets, and therefore the FAA should focus its attention only on them.”

Agency Guidance

Meanwhile, in addition to the guidance in the FSAW bulletins, the FAA has established a special team on call 24/7 for owners and operators who feel they have an affected part for which they can’t get an authorized replacement. “Team members will work with operators to facilitate getting their airplane back in the air,” GAMA said, “including possibly helping to get affected parts approved in a timely manner, spot exemptions to operators that can’t get a part for an extended time or a determination that an affected replacement part meets an equivalent level of safety.”

The FAA team contacts are: Frank Weiderman at (202) 267-5012 for Part 135 operators and Kim Barnette at (202) 493-4922 for Part 91 operators. Team leader is Jeff Gardlin at (425) 227-2100.

How did the industry suddenly find itself in such a dilemma? First, the FAA’s economic analysis done as part of the proposed rulemaking suggested the rule would have no financial effect on general aviation.

“There was an assumption in the FAA’s economic analysis that all business aircraft insulation materials meet the new standards because they far exceeded the former and previous standards for decades,” the GAMA official said. “It was, as it turns out, a mistake to expect that they would meet the new standard.”

Apparently industry didn’t challenge this conclusion during the rulemaking process. According to GAMA, “There were no comments submitted to the FAA stating this rule would be a problem.”