ETOPS proposal flawed, say bizav trade groups

 - March 28, 2007, 12:30 PM

Lack of critical single-engine speed and distance data from manufacturers makes the FAA’s proposal to establish extended twin-engine operations (ETOPS) thresholds for Part 135 operators unworkable, according to comments submitted by NBAA and the National Air Transportation Association.

“The lack of data has made it impossible to quantify both the operational and economic impact of the proposed rule,” said NBAA. Also, NATA called on the agency to “postpone further action” on the restrictions and to open the comment period, which closed March 15, for an additional 90 days.

The proposal would set restrictions and special requirements for Part 135 multi-engine airplanes that fly farther than 180 minutes from an adequate airport at single-engine airspeeds. If an operator meets additional requirements, flights up to 240 minutes from an adequate airport would be allowed (AIN, December 2003, page 1).

NATA director of government and industry affairs Eric Byer explained, “Although there were several components of the rule that we commented on, it was impossible to comment on the central issue: what exactly does 180 minutes mean and how will it affect existing operations?”

Equating the 180-minute standard to a distance is necessary to plan the flight so as to remain within single-engine range of alternate airports. The equation requires a range of speeds determined by airplane manufacturers for this purpose. These speed tables are not yet available, according to NATA.

Byer continued, “In our opinion, it also puts the entire economic analysis in serious trouble. If data essential to analyzing the rule does not exist, how could the FAA have reasonably determined the effect?”

NATA refuted the FAA’s claims that Part 135 operations are restricted to 180-minute limitations today, stating, “Despite numerous requests for what the agency has described as a ‘de facto’ policy, to date the FAA has not produced a single regulation, handbook bulletin, policy memorandum or other document enforceable upon an operator stating any such restriction.”

Also troubling to the association is the apparent failure to recognize that a 180-minute limitation imposes a regulatory burden on all Part 135 operations outside the continental U.S., not just those operations conducted beyond the 180-minute standard.

“We hope the FAA’s review of comments will open its eyes to the many shortcomings of this proposal and that it will not attempt to proceed to a final rule until these issues are resolved,” Byer concluded.

NBAA: ETOPS Proposal Is Unjustified

In its comments to the FAA, NBAA said that no accidents have befallen Part 135 operations authorized for extended flights greater than the minimum requirements contained in the NPRM. With that, the “FAA has not provided any safety or efficiency rationale for implementing this rule,” the association said.

Although NBAA could not complete its review because of the lack of data from manufacturers, the association did comment on other aspects of the proposal. For example, NBAA said the proposed rule does not make clear whether proving/validation flights, even for experienced operators, will be required. The association requested that the agency “clarify that experienced operators will not be subject to proving/validation flights. If the FAA intends to require proving/validation flights, this must be included in the regulatory and financial-impact analysis.”

NBAA also sees no economic benefit claimed by the FAA, saying the cost/benefit calculations are based on “false presumptions.” The draft regulatory impact study for this proposed rule projected that because no operations under Part 135 in excess of 180 minutes are permitted today, Part 135 operators could save more than $777 million over a period of 10 years. As NBAA pointed out, there is no time limit on Part 135 operations today; aircraft performance and capabilities have defined the unwritten limits thus far. “Therefore, the FAA’s assertion that this rule will save time and fuel and reduce operating costs is invalid.”

It’s a catch-22: NBAA requests that the FAA recalculate the economic effect on GA aircraft that might be eligible for ETOPS. But this can’t be accomplished until the manufacturers make available the necessary data.

NBAA also disagrees with the maximum 240-minute limit and the eight-year timeframe. The proposed rule allows a transition period of eight years from the date the revised Part 25 provisions are published during which Part 135 certificate holders can continue to add airplanes of current design to their fleets. After that date, the proposed rule requires that airplanes added to a certificate holder’s fleet be type-certified in accordance with the new ETOPS design requirements. The length of this transition period was set at eight years because the FAA believes that it is typical of the time required for a new, long-range turbine-powered airplane to go from initial design to customer delivery.

“The eight-year rule for additional aircraft is neither practical nor reasonable,” claimed NBAA, “and does not recognize the actual useful life of turbine-powered business aircraft. Due to the high acquisition cost of aircraft, many Part 135 certificate holders operate privately owned aircraft under a dry-lease arrangement.

While the 135 operator has exclusive use of the aircraft, it might not be able to determine when the aircraft will be sold.

“A 135 operator safely conducting extended operations in one aircraft should
be able to replace that aircraft with the same make/model and continue extended operations in the event the 135 certificate holder no longer has access to the original ETOPS aircraft. Similarly, an aircraft maintained by ETOPS-trained maintenance personnel on a Part 135 certificate could be safely operated and maintained by another air carrier, even eight years past the effective date of this rule. There is no direct correlation to safety with this eight-year recommendation. Continuing ETOPS operations beyond the proposed eight years should be based on operator experience and an excellent safety record.”

The FAA’s failure to publish the advisory material drafted by the aviation rulemaking advisory committee (ARAC) “makes it difficult for operators and manufacturers to fully understand and assess the effect of the proposed rule on existing operations,” according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

GAMA also noted that Part 121 long-range operations have been governed by FAA advisory circulars for many years and are widely understood. On the other hand, the FAA has never provided guidance or regulations for on-demand, long-range operations flown in accordance with Part 135. These two diverse communities have a very different “awareness” of long-range operating procedures, the association contends.

GAMA Recommendations

GAMA recommended that the FAA begin “influencing” Part 135 long-range flights with advisory material only. When FAA field inspectors and airplane operators gain experience, the applicable advisory material could be converted to regulations. “This is exactly what was done with Part 121 operators and manufacturers,” it said.

After reviewing worldwide safety data, GAMA said jets seating fewer than 20 passengers in on-demand operations have never experienced a fatal accident during the long-range missions envisioned by the ETOPS proposal. However, GAMA said it was aware of reports of certain flights that lost a critical system while en route over isolated areas but safely arrived at their destination, albeit with marginal fuel reserves. If these flights had encountered an unlikely but still possible failure of a second critical system, or unpredicted weather conditions at the destination, an accident might have occurred.

Therefore, GAMA concluded that “adequate safety justification” exists for new standards (advisories initially, not regulatory) for long-distance operations. GAMA also believes that Part 135 operators are “unfamiliar” with many of the concepts and procedures outlined in the NPRM and that they need at least two years to develop appropriate procedures.

More than 130 individuals and organizations had submitted comments on the proposal by the March 15 deadline. In addition to reopening the docket for comments, the FAA has other options it might consider. It could ignore comments and issue a rule exactly as proposed; revise the disputed elements and re-issue the document as a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking; or withdraw the proposal altogether.

At press time, the FAA had not decided which route it would take.