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FAA Sequencing Guidance Dictates FAA Project Priority

The FAA Aircraft Certification Service has issued their sequencing document.  This document provides guidance on how the FAA will prioritize certification / approval projects.

Projects will be provided FAA resources based on a Safety Index, Applicant Showing or Designee Finding (ASDF) value, and a project priority which will be calculated from the first two values.  Anyone who plans to seek FAA approval from the Aircraft Certification Service needs to understand this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in order to know how to best formulate their project to get the highest score (and the highest priority) when seeking FAA data approval resources.

Safety Index (SI)

The first value calculated will be the Safety Index (SI).  The sequencing program’s SI calculation puts a tremendous emphasis on safety-related projects needed to prevent an accident (described as “very high/immediate safety benefit”).  This is good to the extent that it prioritizes airworthiness directives (ADs).  When you look at the numbers, an AD that only affects five small general aviation aircraft will get a safety index of 450, while a national/strategic priority for a typical airline aircraft would be given a safety index of 350.  This shows that ADs will always take priority over other projects in other categories.

Unfortunately, this category that strongly emphasizes ADs is broader than just ADs.  The descriptive language of “very high/immediate safety benefit” could be interpreted to mean other projects as well.  This category could undermine the system if it is misused to describe projects as having “very high/immediate safety benefit” when they don’t really meet the normal parameters for an AD.

The sequencing program also prioritizes large aircraft over small, and large fleets over small.  This will put projects designed to support general aviation aircraft or rare aircraft (small fleets) at a distinct disadvantage.

Applicant Showing or Designee Finding (ASDF)

The ASDF  is a function of the complexity of the project and the amount of the project that will be approved by one or more designees.  You take the total number of findings of compliance that will be performed by the FAA (0, 1-5, 6-15 or more than 16 – any amount that is more than sixteen findings will be capped in the table).  Then you identify the percentage of findings of compliance that will be handled by one or more designees (so the finding of compliance does not need to be performed by an FAA employee).  These percentages will fit into one of these categories: 100%, 90-99%, 75-89%, 50-74%, or <50%.  You cross reference these two values in a table to obtain the ASDF, which will be low, medium or high.  A High ADF will be reserved to those projects with nearly all of the findings performed by a designee (or findings based on applicant-only showing which is a theoretical notion that is being developed by an aviation rulemaking committee).  For these projects, the FAA will have very little interaction with the application’s approvals.

In projects where the FAA has a high number of retained findings and/or the percentage of FAA-retained findings exceeds a metric established by the FAA (50-75% depending on the circumstances), the FAA will assign a low ASDF rating.

Project Priority

Project priority is then determined by cross referencing SI and ASDF.  An AD-level safety index will always lead to a priority one ranking, even when ASDF is low.  Everything else will fit into priority status two through four.  The FAA will break ties among priorities by using SI, so this means that SI is your most important metric.

Those performing projects with negligible safety impact (which includes interiors projects like passenger entertainment systems and cabin modifications) get a zero value for safety impact.  This will mean that the safety index for these projects is always zero, which will place them in the lowest possible project priorities.

Why is project priority so important?  Because a project with a priority level one gets processed according to the office’s normal project flow times, but a priority level four project can be processed according to the office’s normal project flow times PLUS 90 DAYS!  So (for example) the FAA may delay the response to your application (and thus the start of your project) by an additional 90 days if your project falls into priority level four; and then after that, additional 90 day response delays are permitted for each ‘resource-limited’ response.

These 90-day-delays are on top of office flow times (OFT), which are the amount of time allocated to a response by the local office – this time is set by the local office at the local office’s discretion based on staffing and workload.  OFTs will apply to responses to discrete elements like test plans or test reports.

Certification Plan

The new guidance also gives an automatic safety index of zero to applications that come in without a certification plan.  This will be a tremendous strike against new market entrants, and could stifle innovation, because new market entrants typically do not know how to draft a certification plan.

We have always believed that a certification plan is a good idea.  But such a plan is not required by the regulations and thus there is no regulatory guidance in how to create such a plan.  The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) forbids government agencies from imposing information-collection burdens  on the public without first obtaining OMB approval for the collection.  The certification plan will become a de facto requirement for anyone that does not want to placed at the back of the line with a zero SI.

Certification plans are good things.  They help to focus the applicant’s efforts by identifying which regulations are relevant for the showing of compliance, and how will the applicant show compliance with each.  But for the FAA to engage in a de facto refusal of tax-payer-funded services to new market entrants who are unable to produce such a certification plan seems to be fundamentally unfair, as it creates yet another barrier to entry for the new market entrants.

Perhaps most damaging is the FAA’s failure to provide firm guidance concerning a certification plan.  Without firm guidelines, any FAA office is free to reject any certification plan as inadequate.  The rejected applicant will then have to face a “zero” SI (thus denying him/her timely services) or go back and try again until the applicant is able to meet the requirements of the local office (thus delaying the projects entry into the FAA oversight system).  Imposing internal FAA workflow requirements that impose a de facto requirement on the public to produce a document that is not required by regulations (by making it  de facto requirement for obtaining timely FAA services) is a back-door way of circumventing the regulatory process that is described by the Administrative Procedures Act.

Solutions

What should the solution be?  If the FAA fails to publish a certification plan guideline to aid applicants in meeting this de facto requirement, then perhaps industry should work with the FAA to develop standard guidelines for a certification plan. This does not relieve us of the problem of using internal work flow documents to impose pseudo-regulatory requirements, but at least it provides some guidance to permit industry to meet the FAA’s de facto requirements.

Many existing approval applicants already have an internal process for creating a certification/approval plan (often one that was worked out with the local FAA office to meet their particular requests as well as regulatory requirements).  For these companies, it is important to review and understand this sequencing SOP in order to calculate how best to achieve a high SI in order to get treated earlier, rather than later.

Another important solution for PMA applicants is the streamlined PMA process found in FAA Order 8110.119.  That document allows PMA manufacturers with non-safety-sensitive (NSS) parts to obtain an expedited review (which should be outside of the normal sequencing mechanism).  It is not without its own burdens, though.  The applicant must perform an additional analysis (not-required-by-the-regulations) to show that the parts are not safety sensitive, in order to qualify for NSS treatment, and then must have full evidence of compliance (as with any other application).

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