This has got to stop. We all know that FAA inspectors at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) level are overworked and that FAA regulations, policies, procedures and programs impose impossible requirements on agency personnel. But when a drop-dead simple piece of paperwork that needs an approval signature hits the desk and gets delayed for some obscure confounded reason, causing the grounding of a multimillion-dollar jet, well, this simply has got to stop.
Here’s the story, from a flight department director. I’ll call him “Paul,” who wisely chose to remain anonymous because he’s afraid that any further pressure on FAA personnel will result in more delays. According to Paul, he proactively planned to prepare his company’s two jets for the ADS-B OUT mandate, which affects U.S. airspace starting Jan. 1, 2020. He found that the first step needed is to upgrade the dual flight management systems (FMS) in the jets to Waas-compliant units, after which adding ADS-B OUT-compliant transponders would be a relatively simple job. The reason he went ahead with the FMS upgrade now is because a timely discount offered by the avionics manufacturer is saving his company tens of thousands of dollars. And he feels that getting ready for ADS-B now will be far better for his company than waiting until the last minute, not to mention adding the benefits of being able to fly Waas-LPV approaches.
So Paul went ahead and scheduled the FMS upgrade through his local factory service center. This FMS upgrade is also relatively simple, in that it is covered by a factory service bulletin, so no supplemental type certificate (STC) is involved. Avionics upgrades don’t get much easier than this.
Six weeks before the scheduled installation, Paul informed his FSDO inspectors of his plans. He was told that he would need all of the FAA letters of authorization (LOAs) that apply reissued to reflect the new FMS. There are four LOAs that apply in Paul’s operation, including one for RVSM operations plus one for navigation equipment in terminal and en route airspace, another for RNP 0.4 and another for one of the jets for North Atlantic operations. Basically, this is just a matter of removing the old FMS designation in these LOAs and replacing that with the new FMS type. This is simple paperwork. It should be a no-brainer, right?
Nope. As Paul put it, “It opened a can of worms. We’re just trying to be good citizens and get this stuff done so we’re ahead of the power curve.”
For some reason, no one at the FSDO knows why—and Paul does not fault anyone at the FSDO—the LOA change got booted up to the FAA regional office. But now this simple, simple change must be signed off by a regional FAA person, someone who is farther from the action at the FSDO level and might not understand how simple this change is or how it can cause expensive jets to be grounded.
As of July 7, Paul’s first upgraded jet had been on the ground for 3.5 weeks. He worries that his boss is going to start to wonder if he, Paul, made the right decision. His company has a big trip coming up where both airplanes are needed. And he cannot fly the upgraded jet because the FAA will not sign off on an already approved modification in which the lack of paperwork has no effect whatsoever on safety.
“I don’t know what else I could have done,” Paul reflected. “I gave the FAA six weeks' notice. When I try to explain it to my boss, who has been very understanding, it makes me look almost incompetent: ‘What do you mean the plane’s just sitting there?’”
It comes as no surprise to hear about this problem because the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General recently released a study that points to the lack of FAA resources to handle applications for certificates for repair stations, charter operations and flight schools. An amazing 138 certificate applications are delayed more than three years; these are businesses that people want to launch that will employ people, buy fuel, generate aircraft sales and possibly help aviation grow. While I agree that the FAA is understaffed, why doesn’t anyone look more deeply into this problem, where piles of LOA requests are likely causing delays in these important certificate applications? The real rub is that there is no safety need for all these LOAs.
RVSM is a proven and perfectly adequate system on its own. New airplanes come with RVSM equipment built in, most older airplanes already comply and pilots know how to fly in RVSM airspace. But every time an airplane is sold or a registration number changes, the RVSM paperwork has to go back to the FAA to get rubber-stamped. And this process can take weeks, sometimes months, because the paperwork sits on a pile amongst other LOAs and certificate applications.
What is the FAA’s job? To help improve aviation safety? How can FAA inspectors assist with safety if they are buried in their offices all day under mounds of useless paperwork? Does anyone in FAA leadership understand that they will not have jobs if we all stop flying because our paperwork is not moving?
Can anything be done about this?
Yes, but unfortunately the FAA does not respond to anything other than massive pressure from members of Congress - no way to run a safety agency. Most FAA people understand what it takes to run a safe aviation industry and they would love to spend more time on genuine safety issues, not useless paperwork.
We need to get rid of all these LOAs. They are not necessary and they clog the system. When an ordinary upgrade that is already approved is completed, logbooks signed, testing done, then the aircraft can fly, and if the FAA wants to mess around with changing a few words on a few pieces of paper, have at it, but for the sake of sanity, do not ground a perfectly good aircraft.