New inspection regimes could spell trouble for aging fleets

 - January 9, 2008, 5:06 AM

The FAA on December 6 issued its interim final rule on a controversial new aging-aircraft inspection regime proposed for multi-engine airplanes operating under Parts 121, 129 and 135. Scheduled to take effect next December 8, the rule would require such airplanes to undergo inspections and record reviews after their 14th year of service and at “specified intervals thereafter.” The mandate essentially disregards objections raised by the Regional Airline Association and a number of U.S. regional airlines over the cost implications of its damage-tolerance inspection requirements, even in the case of commuter-category airplanes for which such programs do not exist.

Although it excludes airplanes operating within Alaska and allows for service-history-based inspections on airplanes with fewer than 10 passenger seats, the rule will likely result in the grounding of types whose operator base cannot justify the cost of recertifying their airplanes to more stringent damage-tolerance-based regimes, according to RAA technical affairs director Dave Lotterer. “This one is really bad, especially for charter operators and people who rely on these airplanes,” said Lotterer, who specifically identified the de Havilland Canada Twin Otter, Fokker F27, Beech 1900 and Jetstream 31/32 as models whose certification did not require damage-tolerance-based inspection programs. “Even if you have a damage-tolerant program, you still have to go through a process that begs the question, ‘How flexible is the FAA going to be?’ This is, in effect, a process of recertifying everybody’s maintenance program. It’s very disturbing.”

Other aircraft types affected include the Fairchild Metroliner, Embraer Brasilia, Dornier 228 and Shorts 360. Under the new regulations, aircraft in service for more than 24 years must undergo their first age-related check within four years of the rule’s effective date. Aircraft in service for between 14 and 24 years must undergo the inspections no later than five years after the effective date. Airplanes in service for less than 14 years must get checked no later than five years after the start of their 15th year in service. The rule then requires inspections every seven years thereafter for all three age categories. Other than the exclusion of Alaskan operators, the rule’s only exception involves airplanes for which a previous FAA AD requires review of service history instead of damage-tolerance-based inspections. The new regulation allows those AD provisions to stand until Dec. 20, 2010, after which time those airplanes too must comply with the damage-tolerance-based inspection regime.

Although a new 60-day comment period  doesn’t close until February 4, Lotterer said he expects no changes given the unsatisfactory response the FAA offered dissenters during the comment period for the NPRM. “After the rule is out, I don’t think that they’re even required to respond to those comments,” said Lotterer. “Anybody can comment on anything at any time, so I’m not sure of the point of introducing a new comment period.”

The aging-aircraft rule places another unnecessary burden on an industry struggling to comply with a host of new regulations inspired by the nation’s “war on terror,” said Lotterer. For example, regional airlines must install fortified cockpit doors on some 1,800 airplanes by April 9. When AIN interviewed Lotterer during the first week of December, the entire RAA membership had installed a grand total of five doors. Lotterer blames the delay on the FAA’s slow response in approving the various door designs. “We just got the Embraer 135/140/145 door approved by the FAA last week,” he said. “In October we got a door approved for some of the Dash 8s, and we might soon get the Saab 340 approved. We’re definitely behind, so there’s some concern that we might not meet the deadline.

“This is what we’re talking about with this [aging aircraft rule]. If they micromanage the system, we’re in trouble. If they want to control every little part, we’re in trouble. It depends on their attitude and their ability to control the various field offices. That will make a world of difference in seeing that this rule is done successfully. If you ask an inspector what damage tolerant means, he won’t know. So there’s a lot of training of FAA staff, as well as airline people.”