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Thursday, November 1, 2012

FAA Decides Against Bell 429 Weight Increase

Despite approvals from 11 other countries, FAA denied a request to increase the weight  of the Bell 429 to 7,500 lbs.
Going against the grain of other regulatory agencies around the globe and the requests of Bell 429 operators in the U.S., FAA has denied a request from Bell Helicopter to increase the max gross weight of the variant from 7,000 to 7,500 lbs. Transport Canada approved the weight increase in January 2012, with several others nations giving the go-ahead through the course of 2012. In July, Argentina joined 10 other countries that have approved the weight increase, including Brazil, Ecuador, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines and Vietnam.

Bell was seeking an exemption from 14 CFR section 27.1 (a) for the 500-lb increase. The FAA found that the granting the exemption “would not be in the public interest.” The ruling followed an analysis that concludes “while the level of safety may be enhanced by the approved installation of additional certified equipment, the FAA does not agree that this can or should be accomplished through the granting of a blanket exemption from the applicability of a Part 29 rotorcraft weighing more than 7,000 lbs.”

FAA also pointed to an “economic advantage” that Bell Canada and other 429 operators would receive over other Part 27 competitors that are limited to 7,000 lbs, and noted that it could upset the “FAA and EASA harmonized type certification and airworthiness standards.”

Describing Bell Canada’s application for the increase as a “business decision” that would directly benefit Bell 429 operators, the FAA argued that comparable Part 29 helicopters in a similar weight class would be “at a disadvantage since they were required to meet more costly Part 29 certification requirements.”

The FAA ruling followed a series of petitions from Bell, 429 operators, other helicopter manufacturers and regulatory agencies. Many of the 429 operators noted the increased operational capabilities and safety benefits from being able to install more equipment such as H-TAWS, digital engine controls, radio altimeter, wide area augmentation system (WAAS), night vision goggles (NVGs) and wire strike protection, among others. One of Bell’s arguments centered around an estimate of creating 400 new jobs, with 300 of those in the United States. Bell estimates that “429 ship sales in the next five years will go from 150 to 500 ships and $150 million in direct supplier sales will be generated to support production” with the approval, adding that another 1,600 indirect jobs would be created long term, according to FAA.

But the manufacturer and 429 operators were unable to convince FAA to approve the exemption. “We agree that jobs in the United States could be created with the sale of more than 300 new helicopters. If there is a demand for that many helicopters, then helicopter manufacturers will fill that need.” FAA added that, “ we believe jobs will be added regardless of the manufacturer… However, it is important to remember that a decision to exempt an applicant from FAA safety standards is, and should remain, primarily a safety decision.” The agency also noted that it has received a number of requests for exemptions related to section 27.1, typically denying the requests. FAA has only granted an exemption “in one situation, directly related to rulemaking that increased the weight limitation for all Part 27 helicopters.” FAA also agreed to examine whether the take-off weight standard for Part 27 aircraft should be updated.

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