Overpromising and underdelivering: It’s a dance that’s all too familiar to service leaders in industries with strict regulation and compliance directives.
Safety is job one in aviation. And in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues and enforces myriad regulations meant to keep everyone squarely focused on that task. Certificated repair stations (also known as “MROs” because they provide maintenance, repair and overhaul service) know that FAA rules must be followed for any aircraft registered in the U.S., full stop. But what about FAA guidance? That’s where things can get complicated — as well as costly.
Guidance isn’t a rule; if MROs, including those with whom the airlines contract maintenance, don’t fully consider the business impact of adopting guidance as practice — on top of what they must do to meet the FAA’s hard-and-fast rules — they could unwittingly open the door to compliance violations and fines.
Here’s why: Once an MRO adds a procedure to its repair station and quality manual, whether FAA guidance or something to satisfy customers or attract more business, it is making a promise that the FAA and its inspectors will expect to be followed.
“You can’t overpromise in this industry,” says Sarah MacLeod, executive director at the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), an international trade association for the aviation maintenance industry. “You will create a situation where an inspector will look for something because you made it a requirement for your business.”
Repair Station Leaders ‘Must Know Their Limits’
All of this is not to say that MROs should try to avoid adopting FAA guidance or other best practices. Stepping up to do more than the minimum when it comes to ensuring safety is often good for the business and its reputation. Customers, for example, might expect certificated repair stations to exceed FAA requirements for procedures that are important to their businesses.
You can’t overpromise in this industry. You will create a situation where an inspector will look for something because you made it a requirement for your business. — Sarah MacLeod, Aeronautical Repair Station Association
“There is a vast difference between the minimum standards in repair station regulations and the elements needed to succeed in the aviation maintenance industry,” says MacLeod. “Any good business is going well above and beyond the minimum standards to satisfy their customers and stay in business.”
But MacLeod says repair stations must keep their business compliance approach and financial and staff capabilities aligned.
“If you commit to following guidance that results in technicians needing to complete 15 minutes of paperwork every day, that can add up to hundreds of hours annually of nonproductive time for the business,” she says. “And when technicians are in a rush, they can easily forget to do the required paperwork, which could lead to potential compliance violations.”
The Inspector Factor: Handling Disagreements
Another compliance quagmire that MROs often face is when FAA inspectors insist that the station adhere to FAA guidance — which, again, is not a rule. Training is one common example, says Brett Levanto, ARSA’s vice president of communications.
“FAA guidance states certificate holders must have ‘human factors’ training for optimizing human performance and reducing human error in their overall training program for that program to be successful,” he says. “If an inspector tells a repair station owner that they won’t approve their certificate until they have instituted that training, the owner is likely to comply because not doing so would be more costly to their business.”
However, Levanto says the owner still might be able to satisfy the inspector by showing the business already provides similar training to its workers, even if it isn’t exactly what the FAA outlines in its guidance.
Sometimes, though, the request to comply with FAA guidance is not only unnecessary, but also an impossible ask for the business — especially for the smallest repair stations. When a significant compliance disagreement with an inspector arises, MacLeod and Levanto suggest that repair station owners take these steps toward resolving it:
- Look at the rule — together. “An aviation safety inspector may tell you, ‘This is what my guidance says.’ And your response can be, ‘Thank you, I understand the procedure set out in your guidance. But let’s refer to the rule and demonstrate how our company’s procedure, though different, gets to the required outcome as defined in those requirements,’” MacLeod says.
- Document the specifics of the disagreement. “Make sure that the key questions, and all communications with the inspector, are in writing,” MacLeod says. This is important because the government will sometimes try to “move the goalposts” by changing the central question that is being deliberated, she says.
- Consult industry experts. Certificate holders should consider reaching out to industry organizations like ARSA to get a “sanity check” on the issue in dispute. These experts can assess whether the request is well-founded and why, and what compliance costs the business might face. “The certificate holder must know and understand the obligations imposed by the regulations and the cost of making the business decision to comply with the request,” says MacLeod.
- Reach out to the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). If the repair station owner, after conducting thorough research, decides to take the matter further, the next step is to contact the local inspector’s supervisor at the FSDO (FAA field office). If the supervisor is unmoved by the appeal, the repair station may present the issue to the FSDO office manager for potential resolution.
- Contact FAA headquarters. If the compliance disagreement cannot be resolved at the FSDO level, an owner can go to the FAA’s Office of Aviation Safety. MacLeod emphasizes that documentation presented to this division should clearly and simply outline “only the facts” and be professional in tone. She adds that certificate holders must also understand that headquarters is not the final “appeal” — there are requests for legal interpretations that can be made and other more formal processes such as the Consistency and Standardization Initiative (CSI) process or the Regulatory Consistency Communication Board (RCCB).
As a final tip, MacLeod recommends that any certificate holder or applicant who wants to succeed in the aviation maintenance industry be proactive about working effectively with the FAA and inspectors.
“It behooves [owners] to develop a professional relationship with the government,” MacLeod says. “That means respect and deference — but not absolute obedience. The fact that certificate holders and applicants have to ‘live with’ the agency should not deter them from questioning requests that are not supported by regulations.”