It is a common perception among operators and maintenance facilities that trying to get approval criteria from the FAA for just about anything is a moving target that varies from region to region and even among inspectors. “Shopping around” to get the answer you want to hear has been common for as long as anyone can remember. Loosely defined criteria can present a serious safety hazard, and it’s widely recognized that they are a significant waste of time and money for both the applicant and the FAA.
In 2010 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that industry stakeholders and experts believed that the FAA certification and approval processes contribute positively to the safety of the national airspace system. However, the office also noted that negative certification and approval experiences have resulted in costly delays. The GAO identified long-standing variations in the FAA’s interpretation of standards for certification and approval decisions.
An FAA-industry committee made recommendations concerning the consistency of regulatory interpretation, and the FAA has said it is determining the feasibility of implementing those recommendations; a plan of action is slated for some time next month. One bone of contention at this stage is the FAA’s stated intention that it would measure only implementation, not outcomes. Critics assert that only by measuring outcomes can the agency understand if its actions are having the intended effect.
“The FAA is supposed to understand [the concept of] setting standards and measuring performance against those standards: that is what promulgating and enforcing regulations is all about. When asked to track all the decisions leading to a regulation and make a library of those actions, thereby eventually eliminating duplicative and contradictory information, the agency chose to ‘study’ the current broken system to see if implementation was possible within its budget,” Sarah MacLeod, executive director of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (Arsa), told AIN.
Among the challenges facing the FAA is the anticipated growth in its certification and approval workload attributable to the introduction of new technologies and materials and to the deployment of the Next Generation Air Transportation System. Having efficient and consistent certification and approval processes, Arsa contends, would allow the FAA to cope better with this growing workload and ensure aviation safety in an era of limited resources.
Eric Byer, Arsa vice president for communications, policy and planning, chaired one of the industry committees. “Despite the committee’s specific recommendation for a single source of regulatory compliance information that would include not only the regulation and its preamble, but also internal and external guidance (orders, handbooks, advisory circulars, legal interpretations, court decisions and so on), the FAA’s report to Congress merely kicks the can down the road,” he said.
Byer said the agency told him that it does not have the resources to consolidate its regulatory compliance information by sorting through the existing information and eliminating duplication and inconsistency.
“The FAA’s wish to ‘study’ methodologies and existing databases to determine which would be most compliant with the recommendation is an example of the agency’s overcomplicating an issue rather than seeking immediate, medium- and long-term solutions,” said Byer. “Having a single regulatory compliance resource will eliminate redundancies, expedite commerce and, most important, improve safety.”