FAA modifies rules for commercial parts use

 - October 12, 2010, 11:12 AM

“Proposed Advisory Circular: Commercial Parts,” along with a change to FAR Part 21 regarding commercial parts, might prove a case of a pound of prevention providing an ounce of cure.

“The revisions to the Part 21 manufacturing rule that the FAA published on Oct. 16, 2009, included a variety of new rules. One of those changes was a modification to the standards for manufacturing. Under the old standards, only parts that were manufactured for installation in type-certified aircraft were regulated by the FAA. Such parts were required to be made under FAA production approval [PC, PMA, TSOA] or under another recognized exception [such as owner-operator produced parts and standard parts],” said Jason Dickstein, general counsel for the Aviation Suppliers Association (ASA).

According to Dickstein, the new regulation specifies a commercial part–one made for other industries that are not regulated by the FAA at the point of manufacture but which finds its way legally into aircraft–is subject to FAA manufacturing regulations if “the manufacturer knows, or should know, that the article is reasonably likely to be installed on a type-certified product.” The new Part 21 standards are set to go into effect on April 16 next year.  

FAA Widens Scope of Parts Covered
There are potentially quite a few commercial parts on an aircraft such as small light bulbs and various non-structural fasteners. However, they are regulated at the point of installation by FAR Part 43 Maintenance, Preventive Maintenance, Rebuilding and Alteration, which puts the responsibility to determine airworthiness on the technician installing the part.

“One surprise in all this is that the FAA’s draft AC excludes TSOA [manufacturing under technical standard order authorization] approval. For example, say a manufacturer builds an avionics unit according to an established TSO. The manufacturer doesn’t want to get in the business of selling the installation hardware so it gives basic specifications for the necessary hardware and then leaves it up to the installer to comply appropriately. Under the old standards that was an area that wasn’t covered by the regulations. The installer could use parts–fasteners, connectors, light bulbs and so on–that were commercially produced and not specifically intended for use in an aircraft. The oversight was at the installer level,” Dickstein told AIN.

He also cited curtain rings commonly found in aircraft as another example. “They must meet flammability requirements but it was up to the installer, not the manufacturer, to determine they were safe because they weren’t specifically intended for use in aircraft.

“This expands the scope of parts that will be subject to the FAA’s PMA rules. For example, if a light bulb manufacturer sells its light bulbs to aviation industry customers [or knows that its distributors make such sales] then the manufacturer should know that such articles are reasonably likely to be installed on aircraft. Under this situation, the manufacturer must obtain a PMA to continue making those articles,” he said.

Parts Manufacturers Must Opt In
For a part to be classified as commercial under the new standards, a design approval holder (DAH) must create a list of such parts and apply to the FAA for approval. It must demonstrate in the application that each part on the list has no effect on safety. “This is an optional privilege–design approval holders are under no obligation to publish such lists,” Dickstein pointed out.

Most observers feel that the potential positives do not outweigh the negatives. In some cases, the design approval holder would gain a monopoly over distribution of the parts, so publishing a commercial parts list would be contrary to the design approval holder’s own financial interests.

Equally likely, the actual value of a part might make it economically unrealistic to invest the time and money to get a PMA approval. The result would be for manufacturers to begin labeling all commercial parts “Not for aircraft use.”
In any case, aircraft aren’t going to stop needing the part so it’s likely a small number of manufacturers with PMA approval process experience will produce the part at a greatly exaggerated price predicated on simple supply and demand.

“Since commercial parts will be defined by the design approval holder, it is going to be quite a while before the issue is really straightened out,” said Sarah MacLeod, executive director of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association. “In other words, the DAH will have to designate the part and convince the FAA that there is no safety impact. The real question is what’s the DAH’s incentive to do that? Right now, those commercial parts can be sold only by the DAH unless it goes to the effort of otherwise designating them.

“I think it is going to take pressure from owner-operators for the DAH to go to the trouble of making the designation. The DAH would have to decide that going through all that trouble and expense would make it more money. How would that happen on what are ­typically small parts?”

The FAA fine per part per airplane is set between $250 and $25,000. Put a dozen small light bulbs in the cabin of 25 aircraft and the fines start adding up pretty quickly. While the aircraft owner will be facing potentially significant maintenance and initial acquisition expense, the biggest loser will likely be the part manufacturer who ignores or is oblivious to the new regulations.

“When I contemplate the FAA prosecuting someone who ignores the regulation I can’t imagine the agency bringing a cause of action against a huge corporation like Westinghouse. The agency isn’t going to want to square off with the large number of lawyers a company of that size would bring to court. It’s far more likely it will go after small mom-and-pop manufacturers who won’t be much of a challenge in court,” Dickstein said.

Despite the potential downside the change has its supporters. Karl Detweiler, director of business development and marketing (component solutions) for Duncan Aviation, said, “The use and misuse of industry-standard parts that the FAA is attempting to address by its new regulation has long been a problem plaguing aviation. … Sometimes it’s hard to be sure what the guidelines are.”   

Detweiler said it’s not unusual to find companies “straying a lot from the regulations.” He cited examples of parts installed on aircraft ranging from DVD players to small diodes and light bulbs that were not originally intended for use in aviation.

“Almost daily, our shops find components with small-piece parts installed that came from a variety of ‘non-aviation’ sources,” he said. “Because we’ve seen some of the abuses of the regulations as they have been written, we understand why the FAA needs to clarify and regulate further this section of the industry by writing new commercial parts standards in FAR 21.9.”   

Detweiler concedes there’s little doubt the new regulations will add to both acquisition and maintenance costs. “Our costs at Duncan Aviation will likely be affected most by parts pricing because the manufacturer will have to cover its cost of the burden for getting FAA approval and properly documenting parts.   

“It is our feeling that although the new regulations will be burdensome in some areas, the resulting quality of components and piece parts used in ­aviation will lead to added safety, and in many cases will actually save the operator money. Many component overhauls and repairs by some facilities previously used off-the-shelf parts from a supplier where no quality control was practiced. We regularly see components that fail early due to questionable parts, resulting in increased operator expense,” Detweiler said. o