Part 135: Is it right for your flight department?

 - May 21, 2008, 6:17 AM

What does it really take to start a Part 135 operation? Talking with pilots reveals confusion and intimidation about the requirements. One is sure to hear stories about the mountains of paperwork and inviting the “devil in your bed” by asking the FAA to oversee your operation.

Operators who want to increase utilization of their aircraft often don’t know where to begin or whether the effort is worthwhile. Gaining insight from the FAA is also crucial–what problems do the Feds see and what would help streamline the process from their perspective? What are the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a Part 135 air carrier?

Venturing into the realm of Part 135, one might be surprised that, although there is a good deal of paper consumed in certification, the standards are not much beyond those observed by a thorough Part 91 operator.

Although there are many ways to pursue Part 135 certification, the simplest way is to begin with one aircraft and one pilot. Tuckaire, just such an organization, recently earned Part 135 certification for single-pilot operations. The company was created in December 1999 for corporate transportation, and the chief pilot, Duffee Ricks [husband of author Linda Ricks–Ed.], put charter certification at the top of his agenda. While the local FSDO said certification can take a minimum of 60 days, the entire process took seven months from first discussions to final certification, and corporate operations were not interrupted.

“Corporate operators should already be doing maintenance, record-keeping and training to establish a minimum level of acceptability,” said Ricks. No stranger to Part 135 operations, he spent the first 12 years of his career learning the ropes from line pilot through chief pilot, with the responsibilities of the director of operations in reality if not in title. His previous work as a liaison for his company with the FAA likely contributed to his confidence in starting a Part 135 operation from scratch.

Tuckaire’s company aircraft at the time of certification was a 1981 King Air 200; it has since upgraded to a 1994 King Air 350 and added that aircraft to the certificate.

The FAA breaks air-carrier certification into five phases: pre-application, formal application, document compliance, demonstration and proving and certification. Within each section are myriad requirements for personnel, facilities and aircraft. A distinction among single pilot, single PIC (up to three SICs can be included) and a basic Part 135 operation is made at the outset.

Establishing a basic Part 135 operation using more than one pilot requires the addition of a director of maintenance and a director of operations (these duties can be combined with the chief pilot position). Basic 135 also requires a company-specific operations manual and a training program.

If the operation is going to be small in scope for a while, it may be quicker, and less expensive in startup costs, to opt for the single-pilot or single-PIC option and later upgrade to the basic certification. Other less limiting provisions for full Part 135 certification exist, including scheduled service up to five times per week, but for simplicity this article will be limited to single-PIC certification.

Starting Point

Approaching the local FSDO is the place to begin. An orientation video, often somewhat dated, provides a general overview of certification. Then the Part 135 process begins in earnest with a pre-application statement of intent (PASI). Recognizing that operators may be “not fully aware of the regulatory requirements and the costs involved” in air-carrier certification, the FAA requires submission of this preliminary document before committing its already taxed resources.

The completed document denotes the applicant’s intent to complete the certification process. Several advisory circulars (AC) are available from the FAA to assist in orienting the applicant to the many tasks that certification requires. In addition to the PASI, the FSDO will provide many of these references and direction on obtaining additional sources during the pre-application meeting. Both NBAA and NATA have booklets with accompanying informational CD-ROMs that will also help guide an applicant through the process.

The completed PASI is forwarded to the regional flight standards division (RFSD), then on to the certificate holder’s district office (CHDO) for assignment of personnel. The CHDO also initiates FSDO files such as the program tracking and reporting subsystem (PTRS) and the vital information subsystem (VIS). Had enough acronyms yet? We’re just getting started.

For small operators the CHDO and FSDO are usually one and the same, but larger operators may have different regions involved. Once the FAA has reviewed the PASI, it is either rejected or accepted. As with most phases, this garners a response from the FAA in 10 working days, so the Feds cannot sit on the paperwork.

Tuckaire began the pre-application process with a telephone call. A date for the pre-application meeting was set and a certification team and certification project manager (CPM) were assigned. Generally the team consists of  CPM/operations (may be separate or combined) and maintenance and avionics inspectors.

Ricks met with the team for the first time at the pre-application meeting and was presented with a certification package, a wad of ACs, checklists and forms. One of the more important ones to fill out is the “Air Taxi and Commuter Air Carrier Registration under Part 298 of the Regulations of the Department of Transportation” form, or simply OST Form 4507.

In addition, a registration of insurance coverage is made to the DOT on Form 6410, which should accompany the 4507. The local FSDO advises this is done early–although to get insurance you must have an airplane–so the forms have time to be processed in Washington and not delay certification.

The last set of requirements for the pre-application phase, called Gate 1, includes the DOT filing, the selection of maintenance and training facilities, letters of intent to lease or purchase aircraft, submission of the application, PASI and a proposed schedule of events and the designation of key personnel for the operation.

Armed with a copy of the FARs–Part 119 and 135, in particular, and 1 through 299, in general– Ricks began writing the formal application and accompanying attachments: a schedule of events, initial compliance statement, company manuals, company training curriculum (although Tuckaire got this document waived as a single-PIC operation), management qualification resumes and documents of purchase, contracts or lease (Gate 2).

So why didn’t Ricks just purchase a commercially prepared certification package? One may gain some relief through this method, but then again maybe not, according to FSDO personnel. Their experience is that the operators who write their own manuals and compliance statements generally do better overall in the certification process.

First, reading and writing the manuals, line by line with the FAR in hand, gives an applicant the knowledge of how to comply. Second, using a commercially prepared package requires nearly as careful scrutiny, just less word processing.

It is not unheard of to have operators submit a canned program without careful review only to get the whole lot back because it doesn’t apply to their operation. So those deciding to take the commercial-package avenue for certification should be sure to read carefully, regulations in hand.

More Paperwork

The compliance statement is a dissection of Part 119, Part 135 and any other applicable parts, and a statement of how a company will comply with all applicable regulations and what documents support this. Working with sample manuals, a handout from the FAA and the regulations, Ricks drafted a compliance statement, which was rejected by the FSDO because of the format. He went back and literally addressed the regulations line by line, a format deemed acceptable to the FSDO. To avoid time-consuming rewrites, make sure to coordinate closely with CPM and overseeing personnel, if applicable.

General operations and maintenance manuals are drafted at this time, but they do not need to be finalized for formal application submission. All applicable parts should be outlined at a minimum to provide the CPM accountability. Located in these manuals are policies, duties, responsibilities of personnel, operational control policy and procedures. Initial company training curricula must include several specific subjects: basic indoctrination, emergency training, initial aircraft ground training and initial aircraft flight training.

Speaking of training, check with the provider to see if they will upgrade a company’s training to include Part 135 and integrate its standards into the manual. What about Part 135 pilots losing the last day of training to the checkride? While this can happen, applicants have options to get the most out of their training programs. Ask for an additional day to take the checkride in the simulator. Another alternative is to take the checkride at home in the aircraft. Ricks elects to take his checkride at home since the FSDO is less than 20 min away, and he retains full use of the sim for practice.

Facility, aircraft and service agreements at the time of formal application must show the FAA the applicant has a plan for which aircraft he will operate, will base and will accomplish what was proposed in the compliance statement. For instance, they want to know the applicant has a means to obtain current weather, notams, maintenance, charts and plates, airport analysis and obstruction data (if applicable) and crew training.

In a one-person operation this results in massive coordination and, hence, time. The FAA recommends turning in the formal application and attachments 90 days before revenue operations begin, but sooner is better. Much of this paperwork should be coordinated with the FSDO as it is completed. This helps to prevent any surprises when the formal application is turned in. Again, the whole package is accepted or rejected, along with an explanation of why it was rejected, if applicable.

During the formal application phase, the operator must begin to develop a list of authorization, deviation and exemption requests. Part 135 operators are required to request authorization for most operations, and these later come back as a list in the operations specifications issued by the FAA.

Some of these authorizations come from the FAA, but many need to be specifically requested. For instance, circle-to-land authorization, land-and-hold-short operations and operations during ground icing conditions require specific approval. Deviations allow one to comply with the regulations in an alternative manner; exemptions excuse an operator from complying with a particular requirement. Requests such as combining management positions, waiving training programs for single-PIC operators and the like need to be negotiated during formal application.

The formal application phase is concluded with a meeting to resolve any questions by either side. Coordination of the schedule of events becomes more crucial as the FAA must have personnel available to complete the next phases toward certification.

The Next Phase

Moving into the document compliance phase, after acceptance of the formal application, the FAA embarks on an evaluation of all manuals, programs and documents required. Beyond the general manuals, aircraft-specific maintenance manuals, weight-and-balance, MEL and flight manuals are examined. Cockpit checklists, passenger briefing cards, flight following/locating and dispatch procedures are reviewed, and hazmat programs must be established.

A program to comply with drug-testing requirements must also be established. While many operators use consortiums, there are a few stalwart individuals who write and manage their own drug-testing programs.

Noise and environmental assessments must also be turned in during this phase. Tuckaire’s corporate attorney, who specializes in aviation law, handled the filing of the EPA paperwork. In Tuckaire’s case the paperwork was relatively straightforward, but new operators at facilities not versed in charter operations will require noise profile research. It is advisable to consult an attorney when filling out this package of forms.

A proving test plan must be submitted during this phase. Proving runs of up to 25 hr in turbine aircraft are required for operators moving into new or unfamiliar equipment. The local FSDO may waive up to 25 percent of the required flight hours and the region may waive another quarter. The extent of proving runs is usually relaxed only when the operator is using aircraft with which it is familiar, but brand-new operators will likely fly the full complement.

Demonstration and proving events begin somewhat simultaneously with document compliance. Events such as crew training can be observed by inspectors while maintenance manuals are being approved by certification team members in the office. Checkrides, facility inspections and maintenance activities are observed and qualified during this phase. Record-keeping procedures are finalized and approved–an especially important process since the FAA highlights this as a primary reference to the status of an operation.    

During the demonstration and proving phase the aircraft conformity inspection is done. Aircraft conformity is a formidable job: all components are checked to be sure they contain approved parts; the aircraft is spot checked for compliance; and all required equipment, from flashlights to life vests and passenger briefing cards, are examined.

As a point of reference, the King Air 350 required 100 hr of a mechanic’s time for research and verification of parts. It took an operations inspector, two maintenance inspectors and an avionics inspector a full day to complete the inspection. That was after Ricks and the mechanics developed a component history and status tracking log.

One of the snags they ran into was that the sheet from Pratt & Whitney Canada verifying the internal components of the engine was not in the logbooks. Ricks had to call Raytheon, which had Pratt & Whitney Canada’s original document on file from when the aircraft was built, and request a copy of the paperwork. Another problem cropped up with the dates on the fire bottles–they were stamped on the unit but there were no accompanying overhaul tags indicating who did the work. Since the date was fast approaching for hydrostatic testing of the bottles, they were sent out for overhaul and the accompanying tags were included in the books.

Nearing the Finish Line

Once all inspections, demonstrations and deficiencies are rectified, and manuals, maintenance and training have been reviewed (Gate 3), the applicant moves into the certification phase. The FAA issues the air carrier certificate and operations specifications, which become part of the company manual and are signed
by the operator and the FAA, page by page. The FAA issues a certification report consisting of the formal application letter, compliance statement, operations specification copies, certificate copy and a summary of major difficulties experienced during the certification process. This report is kept on file by the FAA for the life of the operation.

Tuckaire filed the PASI in late January last year, and the formal application and accompanying attachments were accepted in March. The King Air 200 was inspected for conformity in mid-March and checkrides were taken in April. Air carrier certification was issued in June last year.

But was the process worth it? In the first year of operation, corporate usage was so high that few flight hours were flown for outside customers. In the second six months of operation, the company pursued an upgrade of equipment. Toward the end of the first year of operations, the organization studied adding aircraft and people.

Corporate usage delayed the completion of the fleet expansion, but, after all, that’s what the company was there for. The King Air 350 was successfully added to Tuckaire’s certificate and checkrides for PIC and two SICs were completed on April 23. Tuckaire flew its first revenue flight in the new bird 12 days later. Ricks maintains that the only true additional workload was taking the checkrides and that setting up for Part 91 corporate operations should call for no less diligence.

From the FAA’s point of view, if an operator is offering public transportation, it must have an air carrier certificate. FSDO personnel tell of corporate operators  trying to make ends meet getting caught flying for hire without certification. While it may be difficult to prove money changed hands, the FAA does prosecute to the tune of up to $10,000 an incident.

Is a Part 135 certificate worth it? That’s a matter of opinion. Some operators remain adamantly opposed to outside utilization of corporate aircraft; they cite scheduling nightmares, use and abuse of the aircraft and crew and a fear of the FAA’s involvement. Others, however, who want to increase aircraft utilization and maintain a high standard for their operation may very well want to consider pursuing Part 135 certification.