Imagine you are flying a business jet for a medium-sized charter operator. And it’s around 2005. You and your fellow pilot typically fly all over the U.S. and must carry a full set of Jeppesen paper charts in a bag custom made to fit 40 pounds of bulging binders.
One day, your principal operations inspector at the local FAA FSDO calls your chief pilot and says you can't fly until you comply with a new advisory circular (AC) that was a result of an FAA order clarifying the regulations governing all the information you are required to have before every flight. The AC—Paper Charting Implementation and Inflight Usage— recommends the following: that you always carry backup charts; that your chart holder must meet minimum standards for g-loading, not covering up instruments, and visibility; training for how to carry and stow the chart bag safely and how to correctly update the charts; a quality control method to ensure that updates are done correctly and ensure that no charts are missing; and a manual describing all these processes, to include a method for revising the manual. Before the operator can implement use of the paper charting AC’s recommendations, the operator will be required to conduct a six-month evaluation period, to include in-flight and simulator evaluations, to ensure that the proposed system is safe. And the system must be included in the operator’s safety management system.
The POI is very sorry, but this is a serious safety issue and must be attended to without delay. (Although there are, sadly, four other Part 135 operators in line ahead of you so this process may take a while, but it shouldn't be more than three months.) Those are the breaks. If you want to play in the charter sandbox, you have no choice but to play by the FAA’s requirements.
Hah, hah, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
Talk to any pilot who used to fly with paper charts, and no one remembers the FAA ever imposing such requirements. I’ve asked airline and corporate pilots, and their and my own experience flying light airplanes reveals no such heavy handed bureaucratic meddling. The only requirement for paper charts is the regulation that says pilots must have all the information needed for each flight.
But once electronic flight bags started becoming popular, the FAA decided that there had to be a process to account for their use. The FAA issued AC 91-78 in 2007, and it basically says that pilots flying under Part 91 can use EFBs to replace paper documents if the EFB is functionally equivalent to the paper document and the material in the EFB is current. That’s not so bad.
The AC further lists recommendations for how to incorporate the EFB into the flight operation. It’s a relatively simple AC and not too burdensome, in keeping with Part 91 operations.
When it comes to commercial operations, AC120-76c applies, and this is where it gets complicated, with 31 pages and three appendices outlining training programs, backups, non-interference, maintenance, decompression testing, inflight and simulator evaluations, FAA authorizations and so on.
The problem is that, once again, the FAA has created far more work for itself and operators than is necessary. A basic EFB (I know there are much more complicated devices, some integrated with avionics, but I’m not addressing those here) is nothing more than a different and better way to view charts and other information formerly buried in stacks of paper. The applicable regulation simply requires that pilots have this information. Why do we need layer upon layer of FAA authorization and processes and useless explorations just because paper is being replaced with a far better electronic device? If the device provides the necessary information, you should be good to go.
We should all remember—including FAA inspectors—that an advisory circular is what it says: advisory. It provides methods for compliance with applicable regulations, but it is not the only way to do so, and no matter what the FAA leads you to believe, an AC is never mandatory. Sure, the FAA might impose advisory material by making an operator comply to meet OpsSpecs. But the burden on the operator is simply to comply with the regulations. Paper charts met the regulatory requirement, and so do simple tablet-based EFBs. It shouldn’t be necessary to go through all sorts of hassle to prove that an EFB is as good as paper and that the operator’s processes for using EFBs are as safe as they were for using paper. That almost goes without saying; the operator is required to comply with the regulations, and whether they are using paper or electronics, they will do whatever is necessary to be safe.
There is simply no need for the FAA to waste so much time and effort on EFBs, beyond reminding pilots and operators that they have to comply with the regulations. Isn’t there something better for FAA inspectors to do, besides put their stamp of approval on an EFB authorization process? How about expediting RVSM applications, for example? Recent trends suggest that the FAA understands that it applies too heavy a hand in many areas, and it seems to be easing the regulatory burden. But when it comes to operations, the FAA seems to love to make life more complex than necessary, without adding any safety benefit.