Clearwater, Fla.-based fractional provider Avantair restarted operations on November 9, following a nearly three-week voluntary grounding of its approximately 60 Piaggio Avantis. The voluntary grounding was precipitated by a July 28 incident in which an Avantair-operated Avanti shed an elevator in flight and flew two subsequent legs before the crew noticed that the control surface was missing. “The Piaggio continued to fly normally for a few reasons, including its dual elevators, forward canards and high wings,” according to Avantair CEO Steve Santo.
Avantair reported the incident to the FAA and NTSB, and it launched its own investigation. “One immediate finding from our own examination of the situation was of great concern to us. The missing elevator was discovered near a runway from which the crew had taken off on an earlier leg the same day,” Santo said. “This indicated the crew had failed to perform the mandatory and routine walk-around to inspect the airplane following that first leg.” As a result of this violation, the crewmembers are “no longer employed at Avantair.”
Immediately after the incident, Avantair also inspected the elevators on the remainder of its fleet and found no discrepancies. But as the NTSB investigation closed in on the elevator hardware–also the subject of a previous Airworthiness Directive–Avantair “decided in the caution of safety to voluntarily ground the fleet” on October 20 and recheck the elevator hardware on each aircraft, as well as all maintenance documentation.
As the fractional operator began standing up the fleet a few days later, the NTSB lead investigator raised a red flag about the locking ability of reused lock nuts, which was permitted when the AD work was previously performed. At that point, Santo said he decided to reground the entire fleet, replace all of the locking nuts on the fleet’s elevators and investigate if any other similar hardware was reused during previous maintenance events. “We decided to do what was right,” he said, “even if it caused more delays.”
A second factor leading to the voluntary grounding was an “evolution” in the FAA’s policies governing the fractional industry. “For some years, some FAA officials have observed that fractional operators were reaching a size and complexity unforeseen when regulations governing the industry were first written,” Santo said. “During the investigation of the elevator incident, it became clear to FAA officials–and, frankly, to us–that Avantair runs a large, complex operation more consistent with an airline than a smaller charter operator.”
As a result, Avantair is also voluntarily raising its safety standards to include Part 121-style operations and maintenance safety programs, as well as a safety management system (SMS). The former two programs are expected to be up and running by the middle of next year, with the SMS to follow by six months. To facilitate these initiatives, the company has retained former FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Nick Sabatini to review its operations and hired David Cann, the former chief of the FAA Flight Standards Service’s aircraft maintenance division, as its new senior vice president of safety, quality and compliance.
“It is our understanding that Avantair will be the first in the industry to voluntarily agree to these higher standards,” Santo said. “We think it is likely that, in the future, all large/fractional operators will be required to adhere to these new standards.”