Everyone in general aviation (GA) seems happy that the U.S. Senate has introduced a bill to force the FAA to simplify Part 23 certification regulations, the Small Aircraft Revitalization Act of 2013 (S.1072) introduced by senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). According to NBAA, this bill and another introduced in the House of Representatives “would set a date for implementation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 23 Reorganization Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) recommendations to adopt consensus-based, design-specific performance requirements to achieve FAA certification.”
While this is a laudable effort, don’t hold your breath expecting that, if such a bill passes, much is going to change or that this will have a huge effect on the GA industry. There are two key reasons why.
First, the FAA, like any government bureaucracy, will not give up power without a big fight that could last for years or even decades. Look at how the FAA is dragging its feet—no, stronger language is needed here—obstructing any efforts to reform the third-class medical certification process. The EAA and AOPA proposed a simple and much more effective method for medical self-certification that would lead to far better medical knowledge among light aircraft pilots. The FAA has thus far refused to help shepherd this proposal into life, despite the fact that there is zero scientific evidence that the third-class medical makes pilots any safer. This proposal, by the way, would do far more to get pilots flying than anything else currently under consideration, but the FAA doesn’t want to give up any regulatory power; that’s just the nature of government.
The second and more important reason is that the recommendations by the ARC, which have not yet been published, address Part 23 certification, which covers new small airplanes (weighing less than 12,500 pounds), not the process of aftermarket modifications. The idea is that if certification were less prescriptive and changed to a consensus standard mode as is used for the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) segment, then more manufacturers would design new airplanes that would sell for less and promote more GA activity.
In a presentation on the ARC’s plans, Greg Bowles, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s director of engineering and manufacturing and head of the Part 23 ARC, pointed out how much more expensive new airplanes are now than they were in previous decades. Four-seat entry-level airplane prices in 2000 climbed to the $200,000 range from well below $10,000 in the late 1940s. In the past decade prices have grown even faster. And the U.S. pilot population is declining by an average of 10,000 per year.
While it would be helpful for new airplanes to be easier to certify and bring to market, it is the 200,000-plus airplanes in the used market where most GA activity is taking place. These are the used airplanes, many with older out-of-date avionics, which could benefit from the addition of new equipment that adds safety. This means glass-panel avionics, shoulder harnesses, angle-of-attack indicators and especially autopilots. Yet the Part 23 ARC doesn’t seem to address modification processes because aftermarket supplemental type certificates (STCs) are covered under Part 21 regulations. Just for fun, take a look at the FAA’s helpful outline of the STC process. It is quite complex.
To make things worse, avionics installed in Part 23-certified aircraft must meet FAA Technical Standard Order (TSO) requirements, and they usually must be installed under an STC. Autopilots are even more daunting, as each autopilot STC can be approved for only a specific model of aircraft and not a segment such as all single-engine airplanes. Yet current regulations allow experimental aircraft to fly IFR alongside certified GA and airline aircraft every day in the worst weather, using experimental (non-TSO’d) avionics and autopilots.
I applaud any effort to simplify the regulations—especially the effort to harmonize simplified new rules with those of other countries—and welcome Congress’s help to push the FAA to act, but the Part 23 ARC is just one step that needs to be taken. Part 21 also needs simplifying so that today’s modern and safe experimental avionics could be installed under a simpler and lower-cost process in older airplanes, thus bringing these airplanes up to a higher level of safety. (Perhaps the Part 23 ARC addresses this, but I haven’t seen the report yet.)
If Congress is really serious about helping GA, why not force the FAA to adopt immediately the third-class medical exemption proposal? This has been languishing in the FAA’s bloated bureaucracy for more than a year, and signs are that it is going nowhere. Both the House and Senate have GA caucuses; if you really care about this, write to your members and ask them to put some pressure on the FAA where it really counts.