Nav Database Updates Problematic for Pilots

 - June 9, 2010, 9:56 AM

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) is warning flight crews that an antiquated FAA regulation can still cause problems. As reported by AINmxReports (Sept. 16, 2009), the agency regards updating a navigational database as preventative maintenance. While the 14-year-old rule allows pilots operating under Part 91 to perform database updates, it requires that a technician perform updates for aircraft maintained under Part 135. In recent months several NATA members have petitioned the FAA to request exemption from the rule, citing economic hardship and safety concerns that arise from the current rule. Those requests have been denied. “In denying these exemption requests, the FAA continues to base its position on an outdated understanding of the technology, ignoring operators' explanations of the tremendous technological advances in avionics,” said Dennis Van de Laar, NATA manager of regulatory affairs. 

“The field of technology today moves faster than anyone could have predicted two or more decades ago. We take many of its developments for granted rather quickly. After all, who can now imagine a world without the likes of microwaves…and cellphones? The impact of technological advances on the aviation industry is great and swift,” said Van de Laar. “As we as consumers adapt to these innovations, government [local, state or federal] has to adapt constantly to the new regulatory challenges created.”

A few months ago some of NATA's Part 135 member operators contacted the organization regarding CFR 43.3(g) as it relates to 14 CFR 43 Appendix A (c)(32), which classifies the updating of navigational databases as “preventative maintenance.” 

“14 CFR 43.3(g) allows certified pilots to perform preventative maintenance on aircraft unless those aircraft are used under Part 121, 129 or 135. This prohibition, therefore, prevents pilots operating in a Part 135 environment from performing updates to navigational databases,” he said. 

According to Van de Laar, when the rule was issued in May 1996, the majority of navigational databases required removal of the unit from the instrument panel and, in some cases, disassembly of the unit itself.  

“It was the intent of this final rule to adapt federal regulations to the state of modern technology at that time. Today, due to technological advances, the navigational database update process has changed from a complex procedure occasionally requiring parts removal and/or disassembly to a more user-friendly, plug-and-play type of process. Fourteen years have passed since that revision, a near eternity in the fast-moving world of aviation and technology,” he said.  

One of Van de Laar's concerns is the inability of crews, in some locations, to update the aircraft's database. “Would safety not be of interest to the flying public? Some of our members estimate that at any given point 75 to 90 percent of their fleet is away from base, often in foreign destinations, with no qualified maintenance technician nearby. As a result, aircraft are often expected to fly using the MEL [minimum equipment list], meaning that they are flying with out-of-date navigational databases, creating a potential safety hazard to those sharing the skies and ground environment.”

One interesting anomaly is that pilots are the individuals who interact with these systems the most and are often required to train the maintenance personnel who then do the database update so the aircraft is in compliance with the letter of the regulation.  

“Yet somehow, changing this is not in the interest of the flying public, according to some in the FAA,” Van de Laar said. “The rule as it stands not only constrains productivity; it also fails to provide protection from unnecessary financial and physical hazards.”