Two years after Congress directed the FAA to take steps to streamline its certification procedures and improve consistency in how it interprets regulations, the agency remains under scrutiny in both areas.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) is placing a high priority on ensuring the agency improves on both counts, and its first hearing in the new Congress was on these issues. “Often, we are seeing unnecessary regulatory burdens that do not serve to improve actual aircraft safety,” said chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). “We cannot let American leadership slip or be squandered…because of regulatory processes that are out of sync with all of the changes in the world.”
The T&I committee asked for insight on what Congress can do in the next reauthorization bill “to ensure that our certification processes ensure the safety of our system while not inhibiting aviation growth.” Congress addressed the issues in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act, calling for the FAA to assemble government/industry panels to make recommendations for improvements in both its consistency and its processes.
The measures came at the urging of industry, which has struggled with lengthy delays–in some cases years–and uncertainty in its certification projects. The industry has also faced uncertainty in the FAA’s interpretation of regulations, with guidance and regulations too frequently in conflict with each other.
The FAA is making progress on improving its processes, Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told the T&I committee.
The GAO studied the FAA’s efforts, finding a number of initiatives are either complete or on track for completion. Even so, Dillingham said, “Challenges remain and could affect successful implementation.”
In the area of regulatory consistency, Congress and the government/industry panel had called for the establishment of a regulatory database and Regulatory Consistency Communications Board (RCCB). The database would house in one place all the different regulations and guidance, not only providing easier access for agency officials and industry but also facilitating access to the same regulations. Dorenda Baker, director of the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, said the agency is pulling together such a database, but it is still years away. It needs to undergo beta testing and then would take several years to implement.
The FAA also plans to assemble the RCCB, she said. The RCCB, said Duncan Aviation president and CEO Aaron Hilkemann, “will help promote constructive dialogue between the FAA and applicants for the resolution of potentially adverse issues in an expeditious and fair manner. Without the advisory panel in place to expedite a decision, individual inspectors will continue to apply inconsistent safety measures and enforcement actions.”
Lack of progress, though, is continuing to harm the repair station community, he said. For example, he noted Duncan had worked with the FAA for two years to resolve a “reinterpretation” of the agency’s position on mobile maintenance units. Regulations “were clearly intended to support this type of operation,” said Hilkemann, who is vice chairman of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. But recent orders provided inconsistent messages to FAA field personnel, he added. The FAA is developing guidance in an attempt to clarify this issue.
Exacerbating the inconsistency can be a lack of communication. Inspectors are often reluctant to discuss differing or new regulatory interpretations, leaving a lack of clarity, he said. Sometimes FAA inspectors will issue a letter of investigation or levy fines before organizations can discuss the issue with their local or regional offices. “This puts industry in an untenable position,” he said, because then it becomes a legal action cutting off the possibility of working together.
Cooperative Efforts on Certification
In the area of certification, Baker told lawmakers the agency has been working closely with industry to understand its concerns. Improving certification, she stressed, must be addressed on the local, national and international level.
Recommendations of the government-industry panel shaped 14 specific initiatives, 10 of which the FAA has completed, she said.
Some of these involved expanding the use of delegated authority and taking a more risk-based approach to managing certification. One significant step, taken in September, involved changing its project sequencing to a process driven by priorities. This approach lets the safety benefit and complexity of the project guide the agency in how it allocates its resources, reducing delays and backlogs. “Now, applicants will be able to initiate projects without delay,” she said. “If they have an organization designation authorization (ODA) or are using an FAA-approved individual delegated engineering representative, they can immediately move forward with much of the work required to certify the product.”
She acknowledged that progress has been uneven, saying some companies would give the agency an A, others an F, and likely a C overall. But she added that the agency is working with industry to develop an ODA scorecard to collect qualitative and quantitative data.
Manufacturers are pushing the FAA to expand its ODA use and risk-based approach further. Boeing is planning to bring several new products to market over the next few years to meet “historic demand,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO Ray Conner. “The large volume of certification work ahead poses a significant challenge for the agency.”
He called the ODA system a key tool for the FAA to balance its workflow while ensuring high standards are met. The FAA has taken steps forward, but Boeing is still spending “an inordinate amount of time on things like seat certification,” he said. The certification process must be “robust enough to ensure that new airplanes are safe and compliant, but also efficient enough to ensure that innovation and U.S. competitiveness are not jeopardized,” he said.
In addition to expanding ODA, the FAA should increase its inspector training to develop more specialists, he said, noting also that the agency should harmonize its certification efforts with those of foreign regulators.
Hilkemann added that industry struggles with redundant inspections. These procedures, many by foreign agencies, should be better coordinated, he said. “Simply stated, the current system is not efficient.”
Dillingham acknowledged the industry concerns. “While the FAA has made some progress, it is too soon for the GAO to determine whether the FAA’s planned actions adequately address the recommendations,” he said. “Industry stakeholders continue to indicate concerns regarding the FAA’s efforts.”