Operators question value of LOAs for RVSM operations

 - January 26, 2010, 9:57 AM

Now that reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM) operations have been running smoothly in the U.S. since Jan. 5, 2005, business jet operators are angry about the FAA’s rigid stance on the approval process and FAA inspectors’ inability to process approvals quickly. Of most concern to operators is that even if they already have an RVSM letter of authorization (LOA) for other aircraft in their fleet, they need a new LOA when adding another jet, even one that is fresh off the factory floor with the latest avionics.

Director of operations Al Cherry told AIN that his FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) took four months to approve his company’s initial RVSM manual. After receiving the approval, he attended a local listening session with agency specialists and asked the FAA personnel this question about RVSM: “What level of operational safety or efficiency is advanced by having to have an LOA? The airplane is group certified, all my pilots have attended formal training, the regulations are already in place to govern how we operate. So what is improved by having the LOA?”

The FAA’s answer was simple, according to Cherry, and frustrating: “That’s how it is. We’re not going to change it. Get used to it. Next.”

Retired chief pilot Bill Pearson experienced similar delays in getting RVSM approvals for the flight department where he last worked. An FAA inspector at his FSDO in Baton Rouge, La., he said, “told us RVSM LOAs were their last priority and [they] put no effort into expediting that paperwork.” One helpful inspector finally got the paperwork moving. In one instance the only change Pearson was requesting was a different N number. “Then it sat on the desk of the FSDO chief for about two weeks needing only his signature.” Finally the helpful inspector dug the file off the chief’s desk and got it signed.

What upset Pearson more, however, was the RVSM, RNP and international procedures documents for a new Challenger 300 the company was adding to its fleet. Unfortunately, the helpful inspector was not assigned to the project. “Absolutely no one cared, no one cooperated, no one would even return our phone calls. Now, they have adopted even more hoops to jump through. Part of the new RVSM LOA paperwork is an [oral] test the responsible person must take concerning his/her knowledge of RVSM/RNP/ international procedures. [The Baton Rouge FSDO] says this was mandated by some office in DC.”

There is no new requirement for oral testing before RVSM LOA approval, according to Doug Carr, NBAA vice president of safety, security and regulation. “According to FAA guidance, the inspector has the option to conduct an oral interview or exam. I think what we saw here was a one-off inspector who thought it was the only way to conduct the exam. While unusual, it’s not something we see as systemic.”

Carr understands that it’s frustrating that in this case, it wasn’t the company’s first RVSM approval. He also understands the frustration of operators who experience delays in what should be a routine process, especially for new airplane deliveries to companies that already operate under an RVSM LOA.

“Every opportunity we get to talk to the FAA about RVSM, we bring this up,” Carr said. “They know what a big deal this is. We’ve given them multiple ideas such as changes to the high-altitude endorsement; there are a number of ways to make this work.” Unfortunately, he added, the agency hasn’t prioritized any changes to the RVSM approval process, and its resources are limited. Nothing will happen, he said, until there is “sufficient horsepower to push this through.”

What galls operators even more than the cumbersome FAA approval process is that no big safety issues have arisen due to RVSM operations. Autopilots and pitot-static systems have proved well able to withstand the rigors of 1,000-foot separation at altitudes above 29,000 feet (in the U.S.). “It’s hard to say there’s a safety case for continuing down this burdensome path for approval,” Carr said. “When are the regulations going to keep up with the current state of doing business?”

It especially doesn’t make sense for an operator already approved for RVSM, with pilots and maintainers already trained, to have to obtain new approvals just because another airplane is added to the fleet, he said. “It makes no sense to go through that again.”

A former chief pilot summed up some operators’ attitudes toward the entire RVSM approval process. “In my opinion,” he told AIN, “RVSM LOAs are totally unnecessary. Pilots know how to hold assigned altitude. We have been flying within 1,000 feet of each other in cruise for our entire flying careers. There is nothing different in doing that at FL280 versus FL300 and higher.

“Yes, we need to be certain our equipment is accurate and that RVSM standards for the airplane during the required two-year IFR certification process are valid, easily accomplished and with no need for further paperwork by your local FSDO.

Why can’t anyone in the bureaucracy look at this logically? This RVSM LOA is nothing but make-work for FSDO inspectors who are so far behind in everything they do [that they can do without] unnecessary work.”

FAA Response

AIN asked the FAA to comment on the issues operators raised and received these responses from a spokesman:
• Why is the process so cumbersome? The process isn’t “cumbersome,” but it is thorough. We reviewed the RVSM authorization process within the last year and found it continues to cover the aircraft eligibility, maintenance and operations requirements necessary for operators to conduct RVSM operations safely. The process is thorough because operators must show they comply with the requirements in [the regulations]. The review discovered that, in most cases, operators that have difficulty with the process are first-time applicants who are unaccustomed to obtaining a performance-based authorization.
• Why do airplanes operating under Part 91 and 135 need separate LOAs? RVSM authorization is issued to the operator-aircraft combination. A single operator that operates under both Parts 135 and 91 obtains only one authorization provided that the operation conducted under Part 91 meets the requirements established for the issuance of Part 135 Operations Specifications, e.g. maintenance, pilot training and so on. If the Part 91 operation does not meet the requirements of the OpSpec, then a Part 91 Letter of Authorization (LOA) is required. If different operators fly the same aircraft, each requires a separate authorization. It is important to realize that the maintenance of RVSM-compliant airworthiness for each aircraft is vital, hence the regulatory requirement for an approved RVSM maintenance program. Except as required by the RVSM authorization, the Part 91 operator is not required to have a maintenance program, only to be able to pass inspections, e.g., the 100-hour inspection and so on. Thus, the FAA must require a separate RVSM authorization for each individual owner-aircraft combination.
• Why do FSDOs take so long for routine LOA approvals? The work of FAA Flight Standards District Offices is prioritized. RVSM authorizations are important, but aviation safety is the first priority. This is accomplished through the surveillance work of the inspectors. The second priority is to perform certifications, e.g. pilot, mechanic, navigator, flight dispatcher, and so on, and the third is on-demand type work such as issuing an RVSM authorization.
• Why not make RVSM a normal operation without LOAs? The implementation of RVSM in domestic airspace was “the biggest change since radar” according to then-Administrator Marion Blakey. A pair of opposite direction aircraft, 1,000 feet apart, pass each other with a closure rate of approximately 1,000 mph. This is done safely thousands of times per day in RVSM airspace. The FAA is proud that the implementation of RVSM has the safety record it does. The successful implementation of RVSM is in large part the result of the authorization process and its regulatory requirements. This success would not be assured if participation is simply taken for granted as a “normal” operation.
• Will the FAA change the RVSM LOA approval process? The FAA continues to review its performance-based authorization processes. The agency is pursuing improvements to the operator RVSM authorization process with the resources it has available. A group of aviation safety inspectors has reviewed the regulations and policies applicable to the RVSM authorization process and is looking into possible short- and longer-term measures that may improve the operator RVSM authorization process.