A meeting in August between FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) officials is expected to include discussion over a matter of contention that U.S. parts distributors say could cost them millions of dollars in inventory—all over a piece of paper.
The complex issue stems from aviation safety bilateral guidance that went into effect June 1, 2016. The Maintenance Annex Guidance Change 6 (MAG-6) documentation, which applies to nearly 1,400 repair stations certified by the U.S. and Europe, set new requirements for parts going into shops. Under MAG-6, parts purchased for use in these facilities must have airworthiness approval tags, known in FAA parlance as 8130-3s.
The requirement—which does not exist in the FAA’s regulations—presented a host of problems. Among them: U.S. production-approval holders (PAH) are not required to ship parts with documentation indicating they are airworthy—rather, a new part’s airworthiness is assumed within the rules that govern manufacturers. Further, distributors that buy and sell parts cannot issue their own 8130-3s and had few options for tagging the millions of parts in stock.
The FAA issued stopgap fixes last year, giving distributors a one-year window to appoint temporary designated airworthiness representatives (DAR) that could tag in-stock parts—but not ones received after Nov. 1, 2016—that met certain criteria. It also gave repair stations the green light to inspect parts without the proper documentation and deem them airworthy.
The so-called DAR 56 program, named after a box on an FAA form, is slated to expire Sept. 30, and the FAA says it may not be extended. The agency’s main reason? Formal designee programs, which give non-FAA personnel the authority to act on behalf the agency by performing inspections and issue certificates, must have training and oversight protocol. The FAA has not developed any for distributors and says it does not have the resources to do so.
“Right now we do not have an intention to renew the program, but that decision [will] be made at a higher level” within the FAA, says Dan Elgas, the manager in the FAA’s aircraft certification office responsible for the program. “It would need some major tweaks if it were going to be an extended program.”
FAA officials say their EASA counterparts agreed earlier this year that a change was needed, and they planned a rulemaking timed to pick up where the FAA’s temporary fixes left off. But the European agency’s priorities changed, reportedly related to budget cuts, and the issue, which has greater reach in the U.S. than Europe, was dropped.
Meanwhile, distributors are using DAR 56 to tag parts, but for many it is a futile effort. One distributor has a team of six DAR 56-qualified staffers focused on issuing tags and has tagged 6,000 parts since January. “It’s going to take me six more years to finish my inventory,” he says.
Another calculated that his company will have $400 million in untagged parts when the temporary window expires.
Under one stopgap measure likely to be extended, U.S. repair stations can inspect some parts and tag them, but not all. Many are simply not accepting parts without tags. Shops in other regions that lean on FAA guidance, notably Asia, have adopted the MAG-6 language and are refusing to take parts from the U.S. without tags.
The FAA admits it grossly underestimated the challenge distributors would face under the new guidelines and is working to fix the problem at its root.
“We’d like [EASA] to be able to accept parts manufactured under an FAA production approval through the bilateral [that the MAG supports], in that our regulations require all parts that leave a quality system to conform and be airworthy,” Elgas says. “In Europe, the [8130-3 equivalent] Form 1 is an actual release from the quality system, indicating the part meets the regulations. In our system, the regulations require a production approval holder to ensure their parts conform.”
The Aviation Suppliers Association (ASA), which flagged the issue as a major problem even before MAG-6 went into effect, has worked with regulators and industry on temporary and permanent fixes alike. It has pleaded with PAHs to issue 8130-3s, but many simply refuse, says Jason Dickstein, ASA’s counsel.
An ASA survey found that 100% of respondents have at least some untagged inventory. About two-thirds of them said those parts are “difficult” or “impossible” to sell. Many have stopped buying parts from sources that could not supply 8130-3s. Some have hired available DARs minted by the FAA’s permanent system to help out but say that there are too few available.
“Parts are going into limbo,” Dickstein says, noting that without a regulatory fix, suppliers will be left with tough choices. “The way through it is not good. You trash billions of dollars in inventory, and the repair stations still need those parts. Some repair stations are purchasing parts that don’t meet [tag requirements] because inspectors are looking the other way. Without a permanent solution, it’s a very slippery slope.”