For the better part of the last decade, the aviation industry has been talking about a revised version of FAR 23 that would streamline and simplify aircraft certification, theoretically slowing the sharp rise in the cost of new aircraft. Yet two years after the Congress passed legislation requiring the FAA to complete the Part 23 revision by 2015, the FAA says it wont meet the deadline. Even the Europeans are baffled by this delay; industry sources say Europe is far ahead of the U.S. in implementing these changes.
The stakes are enormous. The U.S. is already in danger of losing its traditional lead in aircraft manufacturing and at least two foreign manufacturers plan to certify aircraft in Europe, then gain FAA approval through bilateral, giving them a huge cost advantage over U.S.-based companies.
Its not just new certifications that are threatened. STCs and changes to existing Type Certificates seem to take forever. The magnitude of the problem is recognized, and the FAA has detailed marching orders for putting its house in order-yet its thumbed its nose at Congress on the deadline.
As the FAAs foot-dragging stifles an industry looking for lower prices on both the OEM level and in the aftermarket, we asked lobbying groups, manufacturers and the FAA what the ultimate revised regulation could mean to the consumers safety and costs.
Part 23 (accurately, 14 CFR Part 23) is the section of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) that sets out the requirements that must be met for an aircraft to be built and sold to the general public. It also covers the requirements for obtaining Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs), which are major modifications to production aircraft. The FAA and Part 23 were, for decades, the gold standard internationally for aircraft certification. It was the model the European Unions European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) initially followed when it created its own rules for aircraft certification, even using the same number-CS23.
Unfortunately, over the last 30 years a combination of Part 23 being made increasingly and unrealistically complex and the internal culture of the FAA have slowed new aircraft certification and STC issuance to a crawl. Next, a force-fed upgrade.
Aircraft owners are required to comply with the FAAs ADS-B equipment mandate by the end of 2019 if they want to operate in controlled airspace, but installation of this so-called safety equipment has been lagging while owners sit on the proverbial fence, taking a watch-and-wait approach. One reason is the private fund that will supply low-interest loans to owners for the installation. The FAA has to approve the loan guarantees for the program, but it hasnt despite being directed to do so by Congress in 2012.
Bureaucratic red tape and old-school regulation have been barriers in approving some safety-enhancing products and modifications. When we interviewed Pete Bunce, the president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), he spoke of the frustration of U.S. manufacturers and the lost sales they have experienced because of the snails pace of FAA certification.
FAA policy and procedure hinders the industrys ability to efficiently develop and deploy new aviation products and technologies, said Bunce.
Moreover, at FAA Administrator Michael Huertas press conference at AirVenture 2014, we outlined the problem with departments within the agency ignoring deadlines imposed on them by law and regulation and asked what is being done within the agency to correct the problem. His nonresponsive reply segued through the importance of getting the right answer on issues to a shout-out to FAA department managers in the room for the good work they are doing. STC applicants we spoke with beg to differ with him, citing situations where an inspector could have approved a mod, but required Designated Engineering Representatives (DER) involvement to do unnecessary testing, and then ignored the DERs findings.
Under pressure from Congress, the FAA established the 14 CFR Part 23 Reorganization Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) made up of FAA employees as well as members of the international aviation industry. Weve seen the list of committee members and were impressed by the names we recognized. The committee met with the U.S. aviation community and reviewed international aircraft certification standards before issuing its detailed report (http://tinyurl.com/mav4vvf) recommending a package of changes that the FAA should undertake to streamline certification to make it more sensible, responsive to changes in technology and safety improvements as well as substantially less expensive and faster to update regs moving forward.
Outside of the box
The ARC drafted and submitted a nearly 400-page report to the FAA on how to streamline small airplane certification in ways that improve safety while also cutting costs. Part of that plan will rely on ASTM International consensus standards for certifying products, material and other services, in addition to some bold out-of-the-box thinking. Reading through the report, its easy to spot a common-sense approach.
Early in the report, the ARC states in part: The ARC looked at how outdated design requirements and certification regulations affect both initial certification and alteration processes. The prescriptive and outdated rules are the major barriers to installing safety-enhancing modifications in the existing fleet and to fielding newer, safer airplanes because they inhibit innovation. Interestingly, the ARC went as far as recommending a new category of airworthiness that would align maintenance and alteration requirements of older aircraft, not operated for hire, to a level more appropriate for a privately owned vehicle. It also said the certification requirements should match the complexity of the aircraft.
We know what youre thinking and we thought the same thing. Finally, new regulation that would allow the installation of low-cost experimental avionics in existing Part 23 aircraft operating under Part 91, right? Not exactly.
We asked Ric Peri, vice president of government and industry affairs at the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) what the proposed changes to Part 23 mean to buyers of retrofit avionics. He was only half kidding when he told us nothing.
Peri said the proposed changes to Part 23 have little if anything to do with avionics retrofits and more about new type certifications. AEA addressed the avionics retrofit topic with the FAA, but that wont even be included in the final report because avionics retrofit guidance isnt in Part 23. Instead, it is Part 21 that governs whether or not non-certified equipment can be installed in the aircraft. There is cautious optimism, however, that parallel rule changes, including enhancements to Part 21, could be the break consumers have been waiting for. We have already seen progress.
Peri, who chairs the ASTM committee, is credited for a streamlined angle of attack installation procedure that sidesteps FAA field approval as long as the system meets ASTM standards. This opened the floodgates for widespread and fully certified AoA installations. These were once mainly available to the experimental market. Peri does believe a new Part 23 will streamline the certification standards of some aftermarket upgrades and he referenced aircraft seats as one example.
Since seat regulation is prescriptive and heavily governed, certified seats are built to both an acceptable means of compliance standard and to a separate safety standard. Peri believes youll see the safety standard cut down significantly for this kind of accessory, but more modern guidance materials put in place through a ASTM compliance method. This could change the way a manufacturer proves product safety, greatly reducing OEM and retrofit costs.
The project to watch is the Flight Design C4-a four-place piston single thats currently being certified around a new Part 23 standard. It will be IFR-capable, have a certified Continental engine, non-TSOd experimental Garmin avionics and a price thats projected to be under $300,000. The C4 will first be certified in Europe under ELA (European Light Aircraft Category) by EASA. FAA certification is anticipated under reciprocity between these two leading regulatory agencies.
Flight Design has participated in the creation of the ELA category and is involved with the current Part 23 ARC review with contributions to the technical and regulatory committees.
Theres also the Pipistrel Panthera, the four-place Slovenia-designed and-built retractable thats being certified under the CS23 revision with a $500,000 target price, but could more realistically cost $600,000-hardly the affordability consumers are looking for.
Lessons From Europe
There is a lot to learn by the progress made in overhauling the European regulations. The European Aviation Safety Agency is, among other things, tasked with drafting aviation safety legislation and providing technical advice to the European Commission and to the Member States. It has been in existence for roughly 10 years and recognizes that rules previously written for the transport sector arent well purposed for general aviation-a sector thats struggling to thrive for a variety of economic and logistic reasons. Its doing what the U.S. should have done years ago, which is adopting new practices for installing the new breed of equipment that didnt exist when the old regulation was written.
Greg Bowles, GAMAs director of European affairs (Bowles also chaired the ARC to Part 23 and the standards group thats writing the standards for new methods of compliance) told us there are many good programs underway in Europe that address pilot licensing, operational requirements, maintenance and certification standards.
There is a European proposal in the works which would allow the kinds of upgrades and modifications U.S. operators want to make to Part 23 aircraft, but without needing STC approval to do it, he noted. Hes referring to SC-STAN, for Standard Changes, and the rule is expected to be finalized within six months to a year. The policy creates a framework for adding new technologies (GPS systems, MFDs and AoA systems, to name a few) that are predefined in an extensive appendix that can be grown over time and as technology grows. Its an incredibly forward-looking approach, Bowles admitted. The new policy eliminates the costly paperwork-intensive part of the installation process that requires engineering a change to an existing type design, said Bowles.
Depending on the criticality of the equipment being installed, the process can vary, but in a predefined way. For example, primary flight displays that indicate primary flight instruments will still have to be E-TSOd, but non-critical equipment wont need to have a design or production pedigree. Its an intelligent way to set a bar on the onset for equipment that will be used for IFR flying, he told us.
Exactly what the new standard will do to reliability and safety is anyones guess. Reliability rides partly on what is known as the Design Assurance Level (DAL) of the operating software thats found in most new avionics, including primary flight displays. DAL addresses potential failures of the software and the outcome it might have on the flight, from no effect to catastrophic.
Bill Stone, a veteran engineering leader at Garmin, made a direct correlation between DAL and the potential retrofitting of non-certified avionics in Part 23 aircraft.
There is a strong desire by many stakeholders, including the Small Aircraft Directorate, to further abate the certification requirements for smaller general aviation aircraft and systems. Some are promoting actions to increase design assurance levels of software so there can be new technologies installed at affordable prices. That may result in a situation where experimental systems like the G3X Touch can end up in existing Part 23 aircraft, but its too early to tell if that will happen, Stone said.
Reading between the lines, we suspect Stone is hinting at an ultimate compromise for an across-the-board regulatory approval to install non-certified avionics in Joe Pilots old Bonanza. That compromise might require a higher degree of software testing, much like the regulations require now for larger transport category aircraft. The higher level of DAL certification, however, might substitute for a TSO, even though the current DO-178B software certification guidance and DAL level is governed by a TSO.
On the other hand, the design assurance process for certified avionics is considered to be an end-to-end process-from the immediate requirements of basic functionality-to the performance of the final software when running on the target hardware. What design assurance does not and cannot do is ensure there are good requirements and input to the DAL system. Stone strongly suggested this requires good, solid judgment by engineers that know what they are doing.
His point is this: You can have a seemingly failure-proof Level A certified system that still malfunctions. The key for consumers and OEMs in a less regulated Part 23 world might be to select a manufacturer with a proven track record of building reliable systems. We certainly cant argue that Garmin would be a top choice, based on its track record for exceptional quality control and overall product reliability.
That track record and, frankly, Garmins market influence is precisely the benefit Flight Design has as it attempts to certify the G3X Touch as part of the C4s type certificate.
Worth mentioning is that an aircraft manufacturer who demonstrates a track record of being able to design and test aircraft in compliance with the FARs can receive Organization Delegation Authorization (ODA), which allows it to test and report on compliance with FARs to the FAA. With appropriate quality control procedures to periodically confirm the manufacturer is doing what it says, the FAA is supposed to accept the certification.
When ODA presents data and reports, the FAA appoints a committee to review it. We were told that whether the committee accepts the data from the ODA depended entirely on who got selected for the committee. Some FAA employees followed policy and accepted data and results; others invariably either required more testing or stopped everything and had FAA personnel redo the tests.
STOP Saying No
Regardless of how Part 23 shakes out, we think there needs to be a culture change at the FAA, and that means decision-makers need to lose the fear of making even the simplest decisions. FAA employees cannot be held personally liable for decisions they make on aircraft certification. However, approving a design that proves faulty is perceived as a career-stunting event.
FAA employees and STC applicants we spoke with described an agency that has become unreasonably risk-averse. Its safer for an FAA employee to say no than yes, and if they say yes, that employee generally makes sure the file is covered with other thumbprints to protect themselves should something go wrong. As one airworthiness inspector told us, Its all good until an aircraft hits the dirt. I dont want to be the one the lawyers come looking for once the crash become litigious.
The employees we spoke with did so only on background; we were not given permission to use their names. Of the employees of manufacturers and STC applicants we spoke with, most refused permission to use their names for fear of retribution from the FAA on ongoing projects.
To be fair, the FAA also faces a serious problem it cant control-Congress continues to refuse to provide the FAA with predictable funding.
Industry leaders and manufacturers we spoke with arent surprised the Administration wont meet the rewrite deadline because things simply happen slowly there. The AEAs Peri pointed out that it takes the FAA five years to make an amendment to advisory materials, policy changes generally take one year and changes to regulation drag on a minimum of five years. The FAA said its going to take at least two years longer to get its job done, handing another advantage to foreign aircraft manufacturers like Pipistrel and Flight Design, although GAMAs Bowles said we might see the new Part 23 regulation a bit sooner than 2017.
Congress spoke with rare unanimity in directing the FAA to act and it needs to continue applying pressure. Safety and the preservation of Americas lead in general aviation is at risk.