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Sunday, February 1, 2004

Report from Washington

Peter Rohrbach

FAA Reauthorization: President Bush has signed the FAA Reauthorization Bill, which will both finance the agency and establish various programs for the next four years. Finally, the bill has become law after many months of discussions, alterations, and changes in the congress. It had passed the House-Senate conference (AM, October 2003, page 16) but then it hit a major snag when it reached the Senate for a final vote, and it appeared that the bill might be derailed. The sticking point was the issue of privatization of air traffic control. An early version of the bill had prohibited privatization, which would have allowed the federal government to contract out air traffic control to private firms, but that had been eliminated in the conference. General aviation groups have fiercely fought privatization because they fear it would means the imposition of overwhelming user fees that would drive general aviation and all its maintenance business away from major hubs, as has happened in other countries. Finally, a typical Washington compromise was reached when FAA administrator Marion Blakey issued a letter to Congress saying that she had declared a one-year moratorium on privatization, and this seemed to satisfy Congress for the moment and the bill was finally passed. But the fight will pick up again next year.

Maintenance Manuals: One item in the final version of the Reauthorization Bill was a provision strongly sponsored by the Aeronautical Repair Station Association, which sought to force OEMs to provide maintenance manuals at reasonable prices to companies that need the manuals to work on aircraft. This new rule got knocked out during the House-Senate conference because of pressure exerted by the lobbyists for the OEMs, but ARSA said it would nevertheless carry on the fight by filing formal complaints against individual OEMs as cases arose. Accordingly, ARSA recently filed an official complaint with the FAA under Part 13 against Airbus for what it claimed was an unwillingness to supply component maintenance manuals to two repair stations that needed them to service valves and air cycle equipment in the Airbus A320. In turn, Airbus sent to the FAA a 10-page response full of lawyer talk that essentially says that they have complied with the regulations because the main maintenance manual explains how to remove components and replace them. ARSA then replied that Airbus is missing the point because repair stations by their very name repair parts, not just remove them. This is one round in a battle of a long and ongoing war between OEMs and repair stations. Expect more action as this struggle continues.

AMFA in D.C.: The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association has opened its first Washington office to represent its membership with the congress and the FAA. The AMFA was founded in 1962 as a small union representing a few mechanics at smaller operations but it has grown in recent years and it now has more than 20,000 members representing mechanics at eight airlines including Northwest, United, and Southwest. The new Washington office is headed by Maryanne DeMarco, AMFA's legislative officer.

SFAR 36: The FAA has extended for another five years SFAR 36, the special federal aviation regulation that allows some repair stations and airlines to "approve aircraft products or articles for return to service after completing major repairs using self-developed repair data not directly approved by FAA." SFAR 36 was due to expire on January 24, 2004 but it is now valid until January 23, 2009. Permission to use this valuable time- and cost-saving regulation, which allows a repair facility to use its own repair data for major repairs without the necessity of getting it approved by the FAA, is obtained by individual application to the FAA. There are presently 17 repair stations and airlines authorized to use SFAR 36.

Aging Aircraft Regulations: The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is protesting two proposed airworthiness directives issued by the FAA and is asking that they be withdrawn, claiming that they are based on theoretical data and not on any operational experience. The two ADs would affect hundreds of older twin-engine Cessnas and require the installation of an expensive spar-modification kit. AOPA estimates that the ADs would require 485 man-hours and $70,000 per aircraft. The purpose of an AD is correct any defects in the original design after it had been flown and tested in actual flight conditions, but AOPA says that the few episodes mentioned in the ADs are not relative to the spars. The reason AOPA is fighting this so hard is because Cessnas like these are part of the general aviation fleet, which now averages between 30 and 35 years of age, and if laboratory studies become the basis for mandatory repairs, general aviation will be in trouble as the FAA is focusing on older aircraft.

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