FAA touts safety boost at half the cost

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is poised to update a major rule that changes the agency’s approach to rulemaking and opens the door to new technology and a new way of thinking about enhancing safety.

Focus FAA reports that a recently concluded aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) formed by the FAA in late 2011, has taken a fresh look at the agency’s Part 23 rule that encompasses engineering standards for aircraft with 19 seats or fewer.

What it found was that the original rulemaking — while relevant for the era in which it was drafted — had become increasingly outmoded as the aviation industry grew more sophisticated. The ARC found that the original rule, revised throughout the decades, actually had been hampering the introduction of new and safer technology and ideas into the aviation industry.

The ARC’s draft rule focuses on making Part 23 more performance-based, so that the FAA can move to the next level of safety. “The new rule will use consensus standards to enable innovation and the expanded use of new technology. This enables us to embrace change without having to rewrite regulations,” said Earl Lawrence, manager of the Small Airplane Directorate. “We expect to see an increase in safety and new technology. The way we put it is, ‘half the cost and twice the safety.'”

The old rule had grown into a highly complex collection of overly specific regulations for developing new aircraft and avionics. The new Part 23 will enable manufacturers to achieve the level of safety required by the FAA through the use of consensus standards. The result is stunning: more than 100 pages of old regulations have been distilled to 15.

The regulations regarding aircraft seats have been whittled down from three pages to a paragraph. It’s important to note the safety oversight is still there, but the prescriptive design is taken out of the regulation and will become a consensus standard, with additional guidance from TSO’s and FAA Advisory Circulars.

The FAA will continue to exercise the authority to certify whether an airplane design meets the standards. “This is the rule’s first clean look [in decades],” said Lawrence, who noted that the FAA’s last major update to Part 23 was 30 years ago. “We don’t just want to add another layer; we want to rewrite the whole thing to make it clearer and more straightforward to comply with.”

With this new approach, changes will be made to the underlying standards, leaving the safety umbrella in the regulations. “It is not Part 23 Lite, it is Part 23 Right.”

That outmoded process proved overly complex and costly to companies that wanted to introduce new safety enhancing technology to the industry. The existing regulatory framework based on aircraft weight and propulsion type can lead to special actions being required by both the company and the FAA to get safety enhancements approved.

These additional actions can be costly and time consuming, sometimes preventing or delaying the introduction of new technology, or slowing its adoption rate by aircraft owners due to increased certification costs that must be passed on to the consumer. “We’re not constraining safety by regulating how to do something,” Lawrence explains.

Lawrence held out the example of protecting passengers in a plane accident. A plane that stalls at 30 knots and crashes might require an airbag to protect the passengers. An aircraft that stalls and crashes at 60 knots might require an airbag, as well as a seat that is certified to withstand an impact of that magnitude. For a plane stalling at 90 knots, the requirement could be an airbag, a certified seat, and a crush zone in the aircraft fuselage. “We’re varying the level of oversight for obtaining the certification,” said Lawrence.

A more startling example is a type of aircraft accident called “controlled flight into terrain.” This is a scenario in which a pilot literally flies into an obstacle that he or she cannot see in time to avoid. CFITs accounted for 25 percent of all general aviation accidents in the early 2000s. However, as new avionics and other improvements were introduced, the rate began to fall.

But it was the introduction of hand-held GPS — technology that was not available when the original rule was written — that caused the rate to plummet to six per cent. Under the rewritten rule, affordable GPS technology would have been allowed in the cockpit much quicker, accelerating and magnifying the safety gains that were eventually realized through hand-held devices.

To capture such an outside-the-box attitude toward rulemaking, the FAA had to seek out the advice and input of numerous aviation shareholders, making it one of the most expansive aviation rulemaking committees ever formed.

The support and cooperation of international stakeholders has been unique, said Lawrence. Among international organizations that plan to ensure identical compliance with the agency’s Part 23 rule are the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Transport Canada, China’s Civil Aviation Authority, New Zealand, and Brazil.

While there has been such cooperation on other rules, in Lawrence’s estimation there has “been nothing to this magnitude, not the design of a whole category of aircraft.” The key to the success of the new rule is “finding that sweet spot between too much regulation versus too little,” said Lawrence. The ultimate goal — that of safety — is the sweetest part of the Part 23 rewrite.

Read More: Sins of Omission

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