Rules changing for public-use aircraft

 - February 25, 2011, 4:30 AM

The FAA plans to narrow its interpretation and tighten enforcement of the rules governing civil aircraft enrolled on Part 135 certificates when those aircraft are leased by the government for “public use.”

FAA flight standards director John Allen said the agency is drafting new guidance for inspectors, but that the draft would be open to public comment before implementation. Inspectors will be told to consider all contract aircraft “civil use” unless a contracting agency formally declares it “public use” in writing before flight. “Consider them civil and provide oversight unless you see a piece of paper that tells you otherwise,” Allen said, conceding that this new methodology will not be perfect. 

 “We will get it about 80 percent right, and that is a good way to go forward,” Allen told a public-use stakeholder meeting sponsored by the Helicopter Association International (HAI). He acknowledged that the current rules and their implementation are “vague” and “very confusing.” However, the FAA’s proposed solution raised concerns about record-keeping burdens and the ability to dispatch aircraft quickly in emergencies. It also created the concern that any Part 135 aircraft declared “public use” would then have to be “reinspected” and “reconformed” before legal resumption of any Part 135 operations.

The spark for this latest public-use debate came from the NTSB’s investigation of a fatal S-61N crash in 2008. That helicopter was under lease to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and operated by Carson Helicopters. The investigation uncovered numerous problems with the aircraft’s paperwork. The NTSB maintained that these discrepancies should have been uncovered by a supervising agency. The question was “which one”? The USFS contract mandated that Carson abide by Part 135 standards. However, because the aircraft was considered “public use,” the local FAA FSDO maintained it was the responsibility of the USFS to assure flight safety. At the NTSB’s public hearing on the crash last December, Board members were clearly frustrated with these muddled lines of responsibility. “The more we looked into this, the more confused we got and the more ambiguous we found things to be,” said NTSB board member Earl Weener.

In its final report on the accident, the NTSB recommended that the FAA “Develop and implement a surveillance program specifically for 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 135 operators with aircraft that can operate both as public aircraft and as civil aircraft to maintain continual oversight ensuring compliance with” Part 135 requirements (A-10-149); and “Take appropriate actions to clarify” FAA authority “over public aircraft, as well as identify and document where such oversight responsibilities reside in the absence of FAA authority (A-10-150).” 

Allen said the problem has become more acute as federal and other governments increasingly rely on civil aircraft, often contracted for short periods, to fulfill roles once performed by government-owned aircraft. “The business models are changing. You see more and more contracting of services in support of government operations. A lot of time the regulatory framework is slow to catch up. This is another case in point,” Allen said. “My inspectors–they don’t know how to treat someone with a government contract.”

While the FAA’s first pass at clarifying public use may not please all parties, HAI president Matt Zuccaro acknowledged the need for change and the creation of “a simple and precise set of guidelines on the rules governing operations as public aircraft.”

 “Hopefully this time an integrated, comprehensive policy can be developed and made to work,” said Weener. Allen acknowledged that the increased enforcement would have to be implemented with current FAA resources and that “this is an area that we are probably going to have to ramp up over time.” o