Printed headline: Two Masters
The FAA issued a supplemental proposal for certification and oversight of aviation maintenance technician schools (AMTS) that would provide relief from seat-time requirements, facilitate the expansion of airframe and powerplant (A&P) curricula in high schools and better define the standard for assessing a program’s quality of education. While the broadly supported proposals were made in response to industry requests, they come with unwelcome mandates and approval requirements that the education community says would duplicate U.S. Education Department (ED) quality standard requirements and hinder innovation in maintenance education.
After a 3.5-year wait, the FAA published its supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking (SNPRM) for Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 147. The SNPRM ostensibly makes improvements to the agency’s 2015 notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) intended to remove decades-old curriculum requirements and to modernize A&P programs.
In comments to the original proposal, industry urged promulgation of a final rule free from prescriptive requirements that gives deference to schools already adhering to ED-imposed quality standards. It objected to mandating teaching times, dictating passing norms, requiring government approval to teach beyond set levels of instruction, imposing student/teacher ratios, demanding approval of instructor rosters and requiring rigid adherence to static curriculum topics.
The supplement addresses three areas where industry comment prompted the agency to propose additional regulatory language. While the publication does not indicate how the agency will adjudicate comments received on other matters, the nearly 2,000-word supplement increases the size of the proposed regulation to double that of the current rule, instilling doubt that the agency is pursuing an outcomes-based approach.
The agency’s proposal would allow schools to adopt a competency-based program in lieu of ones based on seat time and credit hours. The language was offered in response to joint comments submitted by a coalition of aviation organizations including the Aeronautical Repair Station Association and Airlines for America.
While the concept—allowing students who already have the requisite skills and knowledge to move through a program at a faster pace—received broad industry support, the proposal sets forth a complicated web of mandates and approvals for any school seeking to offer the opportunity.
“In our comments [to the original NPRM], the trade association simply asked the agency to remove time and credit-hour requirements, which would then allow for competency-based programs,” says Fred Dyen, Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) regulatory committee chairman and Blue Ridge Community College professor. “Instead, the agency doubled down,” adds Dyen. “I question whether any school will pursue a competency-based program given all the hoops it would need to jump through.”
Under the proposed language, the agency would oversee a host of education-related elements, including methods of instruction (i.e., one-on-one versus group), the order in which content is offered and testing schedules. The provisions are reminiscent of those ATEC recommended for removal in its comments to the NPRM, given similar quality standards already dictated by the ED.
Accrediting agencies—subject to review by the ED and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity—oversee all A&P programs with access to federal student aid. Schools must adhere to accreditation standards that ensure learning outcomes are met and that appropriate policies and procedures are in place.
For instance, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)—the accreditor of several A&P schools—sets forth its quality standards in a 154-page manual. Among other things, the commission evaluates “inputs (the kinds of students in the school and the recruiting, admission and testing procedures that produce them); resources (instructors, equipment, library, etc.), and processes (how the school actually operates).” Accredited schools go through a rigorous application process and demonstrate continuous compliance with the ACCSC standards through on-site visits and self-evaluations.
Dyen contends there is no reason an accredited school should have, for instance, its method of instructional delivery separately approved by the FAA. “When we talk about recordkeeping for a Part 147, we’re not talking about return-to-service approvals; we’re talking about report cards,” he says. “That type of recordkeeping has nothing to do with aviation safety and is already fully vetted by education experts. FAA approval in most education-related matters [is] duplicative.”
In its comments to the supplemental rule, Dyen says the trade association will reassert its recommendation that the agency defer to the ED on all items related to quality of education and instead focus on elements not addressed through institutional accreditation such as equipment, materials and instructor qualifications. It will also recommend that the few, if any, non-accredited schools be subject to additional FAA oversight of their quality system.
In an effort to expand the availability of Part 147 content in secondary education, the agency set forth provisions for the governance of satellite locations. The proposal would remove regulatory hurdles associated with offering FAA-approved content at a location where the agency has no oversight authority to meet a growing demand for high school dual-enrollment programs.
The proposal would create a system of “dependent” and “independent” satellites, the latter requiring separate Part 147 certification. While the concept is in line with industry’s request, of concern are inconsistent terms and definitions for “working away,” compared to those used in Parts 141 (flight schools) and Part 145 (repair stations).
Given that Part 147 schools often share local inspectors with repair station neighbors, ATEC recommended that their operations specifications mirror those issued to Part 145 certificate holders to identify “additional fixed locations” under the control of the primary location and subject to FAA oversight.
Semantics aside, the proposal is a welcome one for A&P programs looking to expand and for employers eyeing career pathways that begin in middle and high schools.
Quality of Instruction
Finally, the supplemental proposal would remove national passing norm requirements and replace them with a standard pass rate. In its preamble, the FAA recognized the problems associated with the current “norms report” system, which assesses quality of instruction by comparing a school’s student knowledge test-passage rate to other schools of the same size.
While presented as an improved method, it is unclear how a uniform standard would better assess quality of instruction. Like the current rule, the proposal does not take into account practical test results and considers only a subset of the graduate population, since not all A&P students take the mechanic test. And schools with only a handful of graduate applicants a year are at greater risk of noncompliance simply by chance.
The proposal also eliminates language introduced in the 2015 NPRM that would specifically provide for enforcement action in the event a school failed to meet norm standards, citing inconsistency with its compliance and enforcement policy.
In the 30 months since the Part 147 NPRM was issued, there has been a fundamental shift in the way the agency approaches mechanic certification assessment. New airman certification standards (ACS) will replace practical test standards in June 2021. The ACS will adopt the curriculum framework currently housed in Part 147 and will reposition it—more appropriately—as a mechanic certification standard.
A working group made up of agency and industry representatives created and refined the ACS—with public input—to make it more applicable to today’s mechanics. Given that the document sets forth all the knowledge and skills required for mechanic certification and is part of a new system that will ensure it is periodically reviewed and updated, the working group made formal recommendation to the FAA that it utilize the ACS as the basis for the Part 147 training curriculum, which would ensure training and testing are in alignment.
Subsequent to the working group’s recommendation, the aviation education community lobbied for and secured language in the FAA reauthorization bill that mandates that the FAA consider the testing standards in Part 147. Industry’s expectation is that the final rule will reference the ACS as the performance standard and allow AMTS to educate Part 65 applicants to meet those standards in the manner deemed most appropriate.
The FAA reauthorization bill also directed the agency to promulgate a final Part 147 by April 3, 2019, a date that has come and gone.
The comment period for the supplemental NPRM expires June 17.