November 2008

Advisory Circular Concerning an Air Carrier’s Maintenance Program Stresses Importance of Recordkeeping and Responsibility of Maintenance Performed by Third Parties

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Marc L. Antonecchia

In the May 2008 Aviation Newsletter, we addressed the FAA’s increased emphasis on enforcing aircraft maintenance requirements/regulations. One of the recommended steps to reduce the chances of becoming a target of the FAA’s heightened enforcement was to routinely review maintenance and recordkeeping procedures and to ensure that maintenance tasks are accomplished by trained and qualified personnel. Recently, the FAA issued Advisory Circular 120-16E (the “AC”),1 which describes the recommended scope and content of an air carrier aircraft maintenance program.2 The AC describes the 10 elements that comprise an air carrier maintenance program and what should be included in that program. Two of these 10 elements, an air carrier’s maintenance recordkeeping system and responsibility for maintenance performed by third parties, are addressed in this article and should be of particular interest to air carriers that want to avoid being the subject of an FAA investigation.

The AC was issued shortly before the DOT Inspector General released a report (“DOT report”)3 concerning air carriers’ outsourcing of aircraft maintenance. The report found that in 2007 the nine major U.S. airlines hired outside contractors for more than 70 percent of heavy airframe maintenance, up from 34 percent in 2003. Due to this dramatic rise in maintenance outsourcing, the report recommended increased oversight of air carriers’ outsourced aircraft maintenance by the FAA.4 The report noted that the key issue concerning outsourcing was not the location of the maintenance but rather the oversight of the maintenance by the FAA, the air carriers and the repair stations performing the maintenance. Further, the report recommended that the FAA ensure that air carriers have specific guidance for outsourced repairs and that air carriers and repair stations develop agreements that clearly define maintenance processes and responsibilities.

The AC Reiterates the Importance of Maintenance Protocol

The AC defines “maintenance” to include inspection, overhaul, repair, preservation, parts replacement and preventive maintenance. The AC applies to both FAR Part 121 and 135 carriers, and each person employed or used by an air carrier certificate holder for any maintenance, preventive maintenance, or alteration.
In line with the FAA’s emphasis on the importance of maintenance protocol, the AC stresses that the primary reasons to make and retain air carrier maintenance records are to fulfill the air carrier’s responsibility to determine the airworthiness status of the aircraft and to allow the FAA to determine the airworthiness and safety status of the aircraft. The AC reiterates that an air carrier’s failure to maintain complete and accurate records can render an airworthiness certificate ineffective.

Overview of Recordkeeping Requirements

The FAA requires that an air carrier document in its maintenance manual its recordkeeping system for the preparation, storage and retention of required aircraft maintenance records. The air carrier is required to maintain, at its principal base of operations, a list of the location of each record and document, and to identify the person that is responsible for each of those items. The FAA can require an air carrier to make its maintenance records available for review at any time.

Air Carrier Maintenance Recordkeeping System

As explained by the AC, maintenance recordkeeping requirements under FAR Parts 121 and 135 are quite extensive. They require the air carrier to maintain summary status records of each of the following:

  • total time in service of the airframe, engine and propeller
  • the current status of each life-limited part, which includes the time in service expressed in either hours, cycles, or calendar time
  • the time since last overhaul
  • the current inspection status of the aircraft, which includes a list of each task and the associated interval required by the maintenance program
  • the current status of applicable airworthiness directives, with reference to the specific method of compliance used
  • current major alterations, including a description of the FAA-approved technical data
  • records necessary to show that all requirements for the issuance of an Airworthiness Release Form have been met

In addition, the AC notes that an air carrier is required to maintain the following additional reports and records:

  • Maintenance Log, which records actions taken in response to a reported or observed failure or malfunction
  • Airworthiness Release Form or Log Entry,5 which is required before operation of aircraft after any maintenance, preventive maintenance, or alterations
  • Service Difficulty Reports, which document the occurrence or detection of each failure, malfunction or defect in an aircraft
  • Mechanical Interruption Reports, which document the inability of an aircraft to arrive at its scheduled destination because of mechanical difficulties

Air Carrier’s Responsibility for Maintenance Performed by Others

Both the AC and the DOT report acknowledge that a third-party maintenance provider becomes an extension of an air carrier’s maintenance organization. Importantly, the air carrier remains primarily responsible for all of the maintenance performed by the maintenance provider on the aircraft and the recordkeeping concerning that maintenance. Thus, the air carrier must determine that the maintenance provider has the capability of performing the work and must furnish the maintenance provider with the portion of the maintenance manual detailing the work. The AC recommends that, when possible, the air carrier engage the work through a written contract with the maintenance provider that references the applicable specifications of the maintenance manual for the work to be performed, conduct “work-in-progress audits” during the course of the work and ensure that the maintenance provider follows the procedures in the maintenance manual.
The DOT report notes that although the FAA requires repair stations to follow air carriers’ manuals, the manuals have been traditionally written for in-house maintenance procedures. The report notes that the FAA is developing a rule to require specific language in an air carriers’ manual concerning maintenance by external repair facilities, but that the rule has been indefinitely delayed. As such, the report recommends that the FAA encourage written agreements between air carriers and repair stations to define responsibilities and processes.
Before using a maintenance provider for the first time, the air carrier must determine that the maintenance provider complies with the requirements of FAR Part 121 or Part 135, usually through an onsite audit.6 Continuous oversight is required with audits and analysis by trained personnel.7 It is likely that this audit process will be modified in the future because DOT report found that the FAA allows inspectors to rely on the air carriers’ initial audits as a basis for FAA approval even if FAA inspectors have found problems with the air carrier’s audit processes.
Noting that the audit processes were not always effective because maintenance problems still occur, the report recommends that the FAA ensure that air carriers and repair stations have strong oversight systems. For instance, the report notes that an air carrier typically closes an audit based on projective corrective actions from the repair station without ensuring that the corrective action actually resolves the problem. The report recommends that the air carrier actually verify the completion of the corrective action before closing the audit. In addition, the report suggests that the FAA develop guidance that instructs air carrier personnel to record their observations of substantial maintenance so that the data is available to FAA inspectors and air carrier auditors.
The AC recommends that air carriers include procedures for obtaining services from maintenance providers when the aircraft is away from its regular maintenance facilities. Importantly, the AC warns: “You should never use the term ‘emergency maintenance’ to describe short notice unscheduled maintenance, as such terms imply to your workforce that [the] FAA’s regulations and your procedures do not have to be followed. Emergency means that a serious situation has occurred unexpectedly, involves a peril to life or property, and demands immediate action.” Unscheduled maintenance does not void the air carrier’s responsibility to determine the competency of the maintenance provider.
The AC points out that FAR Part 145 sets forth separate requirements for a certified maintenance provider to retain records of the work that it performs. Nevertheless, a Part 145 repair station is obligated to follow the procedures and requirements of the air carrier’s maintenance program and maintenance manual. Thus, the responsibility to retain aircraft maintenance records rests with the air carrier, not the repair station.8 Although an air carrier may request that the repair station retain the records, the ultimate responsibility rests with the air carrier itself.
Similarly, FAR Parts 121 and 135 specify that a maintenance repair station may not make an Airworthiness Release Form or Log Entry on the air carrier’s behalf. No individual may issue an approval of return to service unless authorized to do so by the air carrier. The air carrier must designate each individual authorized to execute an Airworthiness Release Form or Log Entry by name and title and the individual acts as the air carrier’s authorized agent.

Maintenance Oversight Will Be an Ongoing Consideration for Air Carriers and Repair Stations

At a time when air carriers are attempting to reduce costs by shifting maintenance to repair stations both in the U.S. and abroad, the FAA will continue to emphasize maintenance protocol and recordkeeping procedures as it continues to refine its risk-based system of safety oversight. The DOT report serves as a reminder that the FAA will likely continue to be vigilant in its own efforts at oversight, which in turn will have a trickle-down effect on air carriers and repair shops.
The AC makes clear that an air carrier must act as the primary watchdog to ensure that aircraft maintenance is performed in accordance with its maintenance manual. Thus, air carriers need to be especially vigilant in setting and monitoring their recordkeeping protocol, preparing and revising their maintenance manuals, and understanding their responsibilities when outsourcing their maintenance. Likewise, as an extension of the air carrier’s maintenance organization, repair stations will be under increased scrutiny to comply with the requirements set forth by the air carrier.

1 Updates Advisory Circular 120-16D, Air Carrier Maintenance Programs, dated March 20, 2003.

2 The 10 elements are: (1) airworthiness responsibility; (2) air carrier maintenance manual; (3) air carrier maintenance organization; (4) accomplishment and approval of maintenance and alterations; (5) maintenance schedule; (6) required inspection items; (7) maintenance recordkeeping system; (8) contract maintenance; (9) personnel training; and (10) continuing analysis and surveillance system.

3 U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, “Air Carriers’ Outsourcing of Aircraft Maintenance,” Report Number AV-2008-90, September 30, 2008.

4 The DOT report states that, as of July 14, 2008, there were 4,159 domestic and 709 foreign repair stations certified by the FAA to perform maintenance on U.S. aircraft.

5 Although the AC acknowledges that the regulatory requirement for Airworthiness Release Form records does not provide a detailed list of these records, it states that the requirement is generally accepted to mean that an air carrier retain detailed records of all scheduled and unscheduled maintenance items that have not been superseded, records of last overhaul for items requiring an overhaul and copies of the Airworthiness Release Form covering the last 60 days of operation.

6 The AC notes that an air carrier may choose to engage an FAA certified repair station to perform maintenance, but is not required to do so.

7 The DOT report stated that the FAA needs to ensure that inspectors visit repair stations instead of relying on air carrier audits.

8 The AC notes that following the recordkeeping requirements of FAR Part 121 or Part 135 instead of those of Part 145 are consistent with the Paperwork Reduction Act, which does not permit the government to require two separate, but identical sets of records.

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