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Expect New Maintenance Manual Distribution Guidance From FAA In 2016

New standards should change how mechanics are taught and how manuals are distributed.

The most highly anticipated rulemaking scheduled to come out of the FAA in 2016—regulations governing the operation of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—is not expected to change much in the MRO world. Within the aircraft maintenance sector, meanwhile, the most-watched FAA move may not involve new rules, but rather interpretations of an existing patchwork of guidance.

In November 2015, the FAA closed its public-comment period for two proposed pieces of guidance covering Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICA), or the maintenance manuals needed to keep aircraft and engines flying. The two documents—an advisory circular aimed at industry and an order tailored to FAA inspectors and others, such as designees, who must enforce the rules—are the agency’s most comprehensive efforts at explaining its ICA requirements.

The process of distributing ICA used to be simple: Buy an aircraft or engine, and you receive the manuals needed to keep it airworthy. The rules, written in 1981 and changed little since, frame ICA provision as a safety issue: If you are required to follow manuals, they should be made available to you. But as more work shifted out of airline hangars and into third-party shops, OEMs and MRO providers have grappled over seemingly clear concepts. Examples of questions often raised: Does a shop looking to break into a certain product market need to have the required repair manuals before it can pitch potential customers? Or are OEM licensing fees still be considered reasonable?

The FAA has been slow to offer particulars, and the draft of its new guidance does little more than combine bits of helpful input disseminated in various agency legal opinions and responses to industry queries during the last three-plus decades.

[CHARTBEAT:3]

Nevertheless, what the FAA includes in its final versions bears watching, especially given the European Union’s (EU) fall 2015 inquiry into airline aftermarket practices. While the EU’s survey targeted several aspects of the MRO marketplace, including spare parts pricing and acceptability of non-OEM repairs and parts, its main focus was on competition. Most of its inquiries focus on whether airlines have enough choice in the marketplace that does not require using an OEM or OEM-related joint venture. At the issue’s root is whether independent shops have too many barriers to entry—the largest of which could be an inability to secure the information they need to legally perform the work they want to offer.

The FAA’s extended comment period on ICA wrapped up in early November; seeing final guidance by mid-2016 is not out of the question.

Meanwhile, the FAA’s effort to update Part 147, which sets the framework aviation-maintenance-technician (AMT) school curricula, is well underway. The FAA in early October released its draft, which includes the biggest changes to how schools teach AMTs since the early 1960s. The new standards would take into account the sea change in technology in the last 50 years. Proposed changes include removing requirements such as providing instruction on “wood structures” and adding “non-metallic structures,” covering both wood and composites. 

The agency gave industry a 90-day comment period that was set to expire Dec. 31, 2015, but a coalition of industry groups led by the Aviation Technician Education Council and including everyone from Airlines for America to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association asked for more time. The FAA granted the request, extending the comment period to Feb. 1, 2016.

Commercial operators that perform maintenance remain on the lookout for a long-promised Air Carrier Maintenance Training rule. The regulation, called for in a 2004 NTSB recommendation, would add specific requirements to the current rule that calls for training programs “at each certificate holder or person performing maintenance or preventive maintenance functions for it.” The list of required items is expected to include at least 10 areas—one of them being human factors. FAA officials have said a draft of the rule is nearly done, but its progress was halted in 2014 due to staffing issues. The rule may be issued in early 2016.

Internationally, the top priority is implementing aircraft tracking initiatives. In early 2015, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), acting on an industry task force’s recommendations, suggested that oceanic tracking using existing systems be implemented by November 2016.

But a second task force studying the issue said this past September that putting new procedures in place by late 2016 is too ambitious. The task force made 13 recommendations—most focusing on ramifications of unforeseen issues like inoperable tracking equipment or questions surrounding protocol. The task force said adequately addressing the recommendations would require pushing the deadline out two more years. 

Note: this article has been updated with the correct comment deadline date for the Part 147 NPRM.

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