As I arrive in Kansas City for this year’s NBAA Maintenance Management Conference, I thought it might be an appropriate time to address a notable trend: aircraft manufacturers making more of their maintenance and operations data available online, without restriction. It used to be, for example, that you would have to subscribe to receive Piper’s service bulletins or letters. Now anyone can download the latest bulletins directly on Piper’s website. Lycoming has done the same with its service bulletins, as has Pilatus. I’m sure there are other OEMs doing the same.
There have been plenty of legal disputes over manufacturers withholding maintenance data, either making it extraordinarily expensive to obtain or outright refusing to release it. When I have looked into this in the past, usually the OEM said the restrictions served to ensure that only qualified entities—that is, either their approved/authorized service centers or the OEM itself—were “allowed” to overhaul its products. In the FAA’s eyes, at least, a repair station is a repair station and is allowed to work on anything for which it is qualified, no matter what the OEM claims.
There's a rule in the FAA regulations that disallows withholding of important maintenance data. In FAR 21.50, “Instructions for continued airworthiness and manufacturer's maintenance manuals having airworthiness limitations sections,” paragraph (b) states: “The holder of a design approval, including either the type certificate or supplemental type certificate for an aircraft, aircraft engine or propeller for which application was made after Jan. 28, 1981, must furnish at least one set of complete Instructions for Continued Airworthiness to the owner of each type aircraft, aircraft engine or propeller upon its delivery, or upon issuance of the first standard airworthiness certificate for the affected aircraft, whichever occurs later.” And it adds: “Thereafter, the holder of a design approval must make those instructions available to any other person required by this chapter to comply with any of the terms of those instructions. In addition, changes to the Instructions for Continued Airworthiness shall be made available to any person required by this chapter to comply with any of those instructions.”
That seems pretty clear, and I’m not sure if this is why we’re seeing more OEMs publishing important safety data, but in any case, it’s an encouraging trend. (The Aeronautical Repair Station Association deserves credit for making sure these rules are upheld, having spent many years urging the FAA to recognize its own regulations.) Any information that can benefit safety can’t do so if it’s hard to obtain. The more safety-related data is easily available, the more likely that those who need to use the data will do so.
In line with this, another excellent trend is OEMs posting online useful videos about their products (not just marketing videos). Textron Aviation has done a terrific job with maintenance videos on YouTube, as has Honeywell with its avionics instructional videos. Gulfstream has its own TV studio for presentation of subjects for Gulfstream operators, although one must be an owner or operator to gain access to this content. On the avionics front, there is plenty of good online material explaining things like ADS-B, Fans, but very little online instructional content for avionics operation. Avionics manufacturers should take a look at Honeywell’s videos and consider creating their own material to help pilots operate their products.
Today’s aircraft are extraordinarily complex, and anything that can help us understand how to maintain and operate them can’t help but improve safety.