FAA extends comment period for proposed contract maintenance rule

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The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has extended the comment period for a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on contract maintenance until 13 March.

The NPRM issued on 13 November, 2012 would require Part 121 and 135 airline, commuter and on-demand operators with 10 seats or more to develop FAA-accepted contract maintenance procedures and include them in their maintenance manuals. As part of that action, these carriers would have to furnish a list of contract maintenance providers to the FAA in a standardised format.

Carriers are required to identify their maintenance providers, the FAA, says, but sometimes these lists are out of date or incomplete and therefore impact the efficiency of inspecting and overseeing repair work. The new rule would require operators to "develop policies, procedures, methods and instructions for performing contract maintenance" acceptable to the FAA and included in maintenance manuals.

The FAA says more than 70% of all air carrier maintenance is contract maintenance, therefore creating a need for such a rule. The rule has so far garnered 30 public comments, including American Eagle, United Parcel Service, FedEx and Heico. Several comments support the initiative, but also bring up concerns about language within the document.

One of those points is cost. The FAA outlined in the NPRM that costs would total $2.4 million for affected carriers from 2014 to 2023, or about $1.6 million at present values. But some carriers say that this assumption is too low.

The Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association requested an extension of the comment period through 31 March and has said it foresees the implementation of a new rule creating higher costs and labour requirements that estimated in the NPRM in addition to complicating maintenance procedures.

SkyWest also brought forth the issue of cost in the comments, and said that the assumption of private sector and FAA costs set out in the NPRM have been "grossly underestimated" and suggest conducting survey of 121 carriers to better estimate the total cost operators would incur under the new rule.

UPS says it sees implementing a final rule taking longer to implement than the time given in the NRPM. Under the proposed rule, carriers would be required to implement the new procedures by 2014.

"UPS believes it is unrealistic to implement the rule within one year, said the Atlanta-based carrier in a comment. "Negotiation will be required to first agree on what the rule means, establish conditions of acceptability, revise applicable manuals, train personnel and, in some cases, hire additional personnel. UPS encourages the FAA to recognize it will take at least two years to complete this process and that a phased-in approach of the rule is preferable.

The FAA states in the rule that air carrier maintenance manuals are targeted towards in-house operations, and intellectual property issues can complicate the process for providing maintenance instructions to contract carriers. The Modification and Replacement Parts Association, which supports parts manufacturer approval (PMA) parts, says the proposed rule is not direct enough to ensure that industry shares its maintenance manual with contract providers.

"Unfortunately, the proposed rule fails to provide explicit language that would oblige the certificate holder to provide the repair station performing the covered work with the applicable sections of the manual that make up its maintenance program," said MARPA. "This seems to be a major oversight on the part of the drafters of the rule."

While FAA rules have long mandated that carriers are responsible for the airworthiness of their aircraft whether they are using contract maintenance providers, the FAA says it proposed the rule because the Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) "had noticed lapses in the means to ensure air carrier manuals are followed when contract maintenance is performed." The IG cited insufficient guidance, training and oversight and in 2003 recommended that the FAA identify the contract maintenance providers airlines are using to better organise its inspector resources.