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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Back Shop: Aviation Today

John Persinos

No, the headline above is not a commentary on my after-hours behavior. I’m writing this month about the latest challenges in the aircraft restraint market. Ask anyone who manages an aviation repair or refurbishment center, and they’ll tell you that aircraft restraint is increasingly governed by a maze of strict regulations. Run afoul of FAA red tape, and you could incur serious liabilities.

At the recent Heli-Expo show in Orlando, I met up with two experts in the field: Frank McKnight, president, and Rick O’Quinn, sales manager, Aircraft Belts Inc. (ABI), a $4.1 million maker of aircraft restraint systems in Kemah, Texas. ABI is active on the FAA’s Committee on Seats, giving both McKnight and O’Quinn an inside view on regulations that affect the aircraft restraint business.

Their remarks on aircraft restraint were so compelling, afterwards produced a podcast show on the topic, in the form of an interview with Rick, entitled: "The Aircraft Restraint Market Today: How Repair and Refurb Centers Can Avoid Safety and Regulatory Perils" (to listen to the entire interview, go to www.AviationToday.com). Here’s an excerpt:

AVIATION TODAY: How does the FAA’s new "dynamic certification" criteria affect aircraft restraint installation, repair and refurbishment?

RICK O’QUINN: Aircraft that are certified under "dynamic certification" criteria, which includes most small midsize and large corporate airframes certified in the last five years and the years to come, are regulated differently than those in the past. It means that the components on those airframes are certified as an integrated unit. For example, the seats and seat belts are certified as an integrated restraint system. This ensures that the unit together offers maximum safety for the occupant in a dynamic event. To maintain the integrity of this system, no changes can occur to any of the components during new installation or aftermarket refurbishment. The seat and seat belt must always be the same as originally certified through the life of that aircraft.

AT: How prevalent is dynamic certification criteria?

RQ: The FAA is increasingly adopting this dynamic mind set with all new aircraft certifications and new development programs. It just makes sense. It ensures that aircraft produced today are safer than before under sudden dynamic deceleration events.

AT: Have these criteria posed problems for your customers?

RQ: Knowing where to go and what to do with a restraint issue has been a source of frustration for many customers. No longer can a restraint be considered safe to purchase and install on an aircraft just because it is a TSO’ed item. When that aircraft goes to a refurb center for repair, if the restraints need to be re-webbed or repaired, they must go back to the OEM of that restraint system for re-webb, repair, or replacement. This guarantees that the product is repaired by a facility that maintains the original drawings and that the product conforms and performs exactly as intended when certified.

AT: What’s the best way to cope with FAA regulations that govern these criteria?

RQ: Simply follow the rules, processes and procedures when handling items on a dynamically certified airframe. In terms of the restraints, be sure to check the TSO tags. By law, these tags should have traceability to the OEM, dates of manufacture and/or repair noting the OEM or repair facility that last handled the restraint. If any of this information is missing, you need to contact the restraint OEM, or the airframe manufacturer, or ABI.

AT: What are the ramifications for a repair or refurb center, if they don’t get it right?

RQ: Unfortunately, it is the facility or repair station that installs the product on the aircraft that would be ultimately responsible. It would not necessarily involve the facility that did the unauthorized repair. That is why it is so important that the installer be assured that the restraint manufacturer or seat belt repair center they are using is knowledgeable and that they are getting the proper restraint product that goes with that particular aircraft.

AT: What major trends do you predict in the restraint business?

RQ: There are more general aviation aircraft manufactured today than ever before.

Repair centers are spreading across the country at an exponential rate and they will be involved with the refurb and repair of these dynamically certified aircraft. They need to form relationships with suppliers and have in place a reliable vendor supply chain.

John Persinos is publisher and editorial director of AviationToday.com (301-385-7211; jpersinos@accessintel.com).

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