The FAA, under fire by industry and lawmakers alike for lengthy delays and uncertainty surrounding its approach to certifying new products, has put in place a process aimed at minimizing project backlogs while prioritizing resources.
The new “sequencing” process will allow certification projects to move forward and, if necessary, harness agency resources from around the country to help the aircraft certification office (ACO) responsible for the project. The new effort retains FAA’s longstanding goal of ensuring its resources are appropriately targeted, but removes the hurdle that all FAA resources needed to complete a project had to be standing by before the effort could begin.
In 2005, the FAA—in an effort to “focus its limited resources on safety enhancements,” the agency explains in the new process document—adopted a sequencing approach that required all necessary FAA resources to be ready before a certification project, such as approving an aftermarket upgrade, could start.
Applicants for new projects would get “90-day letters,” stating that FAA was uncertain when the project would begin and that the agency would re-evaluate. In another 90 days, the applicant could face receiving a similar letter, preventing them from scheduling key development work, explains Walter Desrosier, vice president of engineering and maintenance for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. That process—originally designed to be temporary—“often resulted in long project delays until resources became available,” the agency concedes.
Both the Government Accountability Office and the Transportation Department’s Inspector General reported on the costly delays and lengthy backlogs that sequencing created. Manufacturers appealed to Congress for help, testifying that projects were being set back by 18 months or more. Congress ultimately directed the formation of an Aircraft Certification Process Review and Reform Aviation Rulemaking Committee to develop recommendations for reducing delays and providing some predictability in the process.
The new process, twice put out for public comment and put into place effective Sept. 15, is based on the committee’s guidance. Under the new process, FAA will permit complex projects to move forward even if the agency may have to push off certain aspects of the certification process until resources become available. The FAA also weighs the availability of designees—company-provided resources approved to verify that projects are done per FAA requirements—as it sequences projects.
The revamped process “offers applicants increased predictability and a commitment to a response time for the review of the applicant’s compliance data,” FAA explains. “The time it takes for certification depends on the complexity of the project and the experience of the company.”
Under the new plan, FAA resources will be allocated based on a project index made up of several aspects. The highest weight is given to a project’s Safety Index (SI), which factors in overall safety, passenger safety, and fleet size. The SI—and the entire sequencing system—is weighted so that airworthiness directives are granted the highest priority. Applications also are judged based on the number of “findings” they contain, and how many must be handled by FAA staff rather than organizational designees.
“Priority is determined primarily based on the project’s safety benefit,” FAA explains. “The applicant’s demonstrated certification capability also plays a role in the prioritization calculation, with safety remaining the primary driver.”
Reaction from industry has been positive, but cautious. “This is a huge step in the right direction,” Desrosier says, adding that the changes themselves will not wipe out any backlog—it is how the changes are applied.
One area of concern is highlighted by the Modification and Replacement Parts Association (Marpa): FAA’s de facto requirement that all applicants must submit certification plans with their projects. Those that do not will automatically start with an SI of zero, meaning their projects will be lowest priority.
Marpa points out that this could be a “tremendous strike” against new applicants that have never put a certification plan together, in part because FAA offers no guidance on what an acceptable plan looks like.
“We have always believed that a certification plan is a good idea,” Marpa says. “But such a plan is not required by the regulations and thus there is no regulatory guidance in how to create such a plan. Without firm guidelines, any FAA office is free to reject any certification plan as inadequate.”
Marpa suggests that industry and FAA work together to create acceptable guidance.
“This does not relieve us of the problem of using internal [FAA] work flow documents to impose pseudo-regulatory requirements, but at least it provides some guidance to permit industry to meet the FAA’s de facto requirements,” Marpa says.
The FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service (AIR) published the sequencing guidance as a “standard operating procedure.” Its title: “AIR Project Prioritization and Resource Management.”