There was a time when aircraft manufacturers loathed airworthiness directives. They considered an AD a blot on a company's design and manufacturing record, an embarrassment, a marketing problem.
Today, manufacturers increasingly are pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to issue ADs on their own products. This remarkable about-face in corporate policy can be traced to concerns among manufacturers about the high costs o product liability litigation.
Juries are holding manufacturers to a higher standard of care than ever before, and jury awards are much higher than 10 years ago. The successes of the 1970s, when most aircraft in the general aviation fleet were built, have now boomeranged on the industry in a tenfold increase in lawsuits since 1974 (see "Diminishing Returns," April Pilot, p. 38 and "Caseload," July 1984 Pilot, p. 54).
Manufacturers base their requests for ADs on issues of safety. But some industry observers suspect that manufacturers are largely interested in limiting their liability exposure through the issuance of ADs, while passing the cost of this perceived protection to the aircraft owner.
Traditionally, the FAA has issued airworthiness directives (technically, amendments to an airplane's type certificate) to rectify potentially hazardous conditions that appeared after an airplane's certification flight tests. The impetus for an AD can come from several sources: a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation, an FAA investigation, a series of service difficulty reports received by the FAA from the field or recommendations by the manufacturers, themselves.
For any aircraft, daily usage in the field is the toughest proving ground. Parts wear and break; operational problems are discovered. Airworthiness directives are supposed to be the FAA's way of seeing to it that airplanes continue to be airworthy.
It is possible, however, that the AD process could be used as a means for requiring additional safety equipment on aircraft. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) is considering recommending that the FAA require the installation of safety equipment such as backup vacuum and electrical systems on all aircraft certified for IFR flight, shoulder harnesses, and fuel restrictor ports to prevent misfueling.
GAMA is also considering recommending that the Federal Aviation Administration establish life limits for some aircraft components, such as belts, hoses, filters and pumps. These life-limited parts would be discarded after a manufacturer-specified period of time, regardless of condition. (See "Pilot News: Manufacturers Propose New Rules for Older Aircraft," July 1984 Pilot, p. 17.)
Manufacturers say that these measures will help them reduce liability costs, but some industry observers contest this point. They argue that insurance companies do not believe these ADs will significantly reduce accidents and injuries. Perhaps the most drastic effect of these measures, as far as pilots are concerned, would be the increased expense of maintaining and operating aircraft.
It is important to note that AOPA supports voluntary installation of safety devices such as shoulder harnesses and fuel restrictor ports, and has participated in cooperative programs to support the use of these devices. Furthermore, the association encourages progressive, "fix it before it breaks" maintenance.
But AOPA is not in favor of regulations that would mandate the use of such devices in all aircraft. In the case of the fuel restrictor ports, many pilots of simple aircraft may find this an unreasonable burden. An AOPA study of NTSB accident records for the past 20 years failed to find a single example of a piston-powered single-engine aircraft having crashed as a result of misfueling.
In large part because of manufacturer pressure upon the FAA to issue ADs, AOPA has adopted a more aggressive stance in opposing unwarranted ADs. Spearheading AOPA's efforts to minimize the impact of ADs on members are Steven J. Brown and Glenn H. Rizner.
Brown, who serves as director of aviation standards in AOPA's aviation policy department, holds instructor ratings for single- and multi-engine landplanes and commercial licenses for single- and multi-engine seaplanes, as well as gliders. Before joining AOPA, he taught aviation-related courses at Texas A&M University.
As one of AOPA's policy experts, Brown works closely with his counterparts at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and in the FAA's regional directorates on issues involving standards for both pilots and aircraft.
Rizner, a flight information specialist in AOPA's service and reference department, holds an airline transport rating, a flight engineer rating for the Boeing 727 and is qualified to instruct in single- and multi-engine land aircraft. He also holds commercial licenses for single- and multi-engine seaplanes and gliders. As a former manager and chief flight instructor of a fixed-base operation, he is acquainted with the sometimes frustrating and expensive process of maintaining aircraft. That experience is not limited to writing checks; in his spare time (most evenings and weekends) he is restoring a J-3 Cub.
In order to defend the members' interests in the consideration of ADs, Brown and Rizner visit FAA regional directorates to meet the people who develop them. Through these visits, Brown and Rizner have been able to inform FAA staff members about the concerns of general-aviation aircraft owners.
The relationships fostered through these contacts have enabled Brown and Rizner to play an influential role in the FAA decision-making process that precedes issuance. The two routinely are called by FAA staff members to sound out the association's position on proposed ADs before they are enacted.
Often, an AD is modified based on comments supplied by Brown and Rizner. Over the years, other AOPA staff members have reviewed Ads prior to their release, including Donald J. Koranda, vice president for membership services, who, like Rizner, works closely with members on problems stemming from ADs.
In response to AOPA comments the FAA has extended compliance 'time and approved alternate (sometimes less expensive) means of compliance. In some cases, AOPA has been able to forestall an AD. Such was the case with a FAA proposal last year to require all aircraft certified for IFR flight to have dual vacuum pumps. Based on comments from Brown and Rizner, FAA -is reconsidering this proposal.
"Sometimes we tell the FAA it should study the problem further and study other options. Frequently, our own research indicates that the problem is not as large as the FAA believes it is," says Brown. "Often this sends the FAA back to do more homework, evaluating the accident/incident record and service difficulty reports. In many cases, [the FAA] agree[s] with us that an AD is not required," he adds.
The first public notice of a proposed AD appears in the Federal Register as a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM). This government rule-making procedure provides interested parties a period in which to comment on the proposed regulation. When the NPRM procedure is followed, and AOPA opposes a proposed AD, Brown drafts comments on the rule for submission to the FAA docket. Such written comments have been major factors in the FAA's decisions to rescind ADs.
A recently proposed airworthiness directive, requiring the replacement of floats in Marvel Schebler carburetors found in thousands of aircraft, was rescinded largely because of AOPA comments opposing the AD.
Of course, the efforts of AOPA do not always prevail, and the agency sometimes issues an AD over the association's objections. Emergency ADs and high-priority Ads can be issued without a comment period, but these, as well as those that first appear as NPRMs and subsequently are adopted, can be appealed.
Until this year, this option very rarely had been exercised by any aviation organization. So far this year, AOPA has petitioned the FAA to rescind three ADs. Brown explains, "We are taking a tougher stance because it has reached the point where ADs are being proposed and enacted that are totally outside the intent of the FAA's continuing airworthiness program."
AOPA has petitioned a recent AD affecting Rockwell 112 and 114 Commanders. It requires modification of the seat attach structures, shoulder harnesses and lap belts to reduce the chance of the seat breaking loose in an accident (in the current configuration, harnesses and belts are attached to the seats rather than hard points in the aircraft's fuselage structure).
The FAA estimates that compliance will cost owners about $1,500 per aircraft. Many owners have written to AOPA to state their objection to this airworthiness directive. The association petitioned to rescind the Rockwell seat attach AD on the grounds that Gulfstream and the FAA are uncertain as to whether the modification will adequately protect occupants. In its petition, AOPA requested an independent study of the seat design to determine whether the modifications were necessary. This request has been granted, and the review is now under way.
AOPA also has petitioned for the repeal of an AD requiring the replacement of aircraft-engine paper air filters every 500 flight hours. The association argued that the FAA had not presented enough evidence to justify this: It was issued on the basis of one accident, and the life limit was established based on the deterioration rate of air filters used in bulldozers, which operate in a far dirtier environment than aircraft.
Finally, the association has petitioned for the repeal of an AD requiring the placarding of 29,000 Piper aircraft with the warning that braking will not occur if the hand brake and toe brakes are applied simultaneously. AOPA argued that the warning properly should be issued as a revision to pilot operating handbooks, not as an AD.
AOPA is considering what measures to take if manufacturers persuade the FAA to issue ADs requiring large portions of the general aviation fleet to retrofit such items as shoulder harnesses, fuel restrictor ports, back-up vacuum systems and electrical generators. These measures may include lawsuits aimed at forcing the manufacturers to pay for the modifications.
Although the FAA's system for issuing ADs has helped make the U.S. general aviation fleet one of the best-maintained and safest in the world, the system does not always operate in the best interest of aircraft owners. AOPA is working to ensure that airworthiness directives maximize safety while keeping cost and inconvenience to the owner to a minimum.