January 2014 - Page 2 Aviation Articles

Budget Tips for your aircraft

As 2014 rolls into the Northeast with a big snow storm, this is as good a time as any to look ahead while waiting for the snow plow. A big part of looking ahead is your aircraft's annual operating budget.

If you operate on a calendar budget, you should have already completed your aircraft operating budget for the year. If this is the last time you look at your budget until the end of the year, you are not taking advantage of the work you have done.

A budget is a best estimate looking forward at what you think expenses will be. As such, you made a number of assumptions regarding things like utilization, fuel costs, etc that factor into those costs. As you advance through the year, you will learn how accurate those assumptions were. Is your budget capped? If you were planning on fuel prices remaining stable, what happens if they increase? Where does the money come from if you exceed your allotted budget amounts?

Maintenance costs will depend on the utilization. What if, having planned on 360 annual hours, which puts the next major inspection into 2015, you end up flying 400? If a major maintenance bill comes due earlier than expected, will you be ready for this? You should be plotting major, know expenses, forward at least two to three years. Things like engine overhauls, paint & interior, major checks, hangar rents, even training and insurance costs are coming on a predictable schedule. 

Your budget should be reviewed and updated as the year progresses. Planned versus actual should be a standard metric. If you have a tight budget with little room for overages, you'd better know early if there will be unforeseen issues. As you start seeing variances in your budget, have the explanation ready as to why. No one really knows what the price of fuel will be next month, let alone at the end of the year. When that cost of fuel changes from what you anticipated, note it and any possible explanations if you know of them.

The key thing is to track and report your costs in detail. Then when there are small variances in the budget actuals, you can see them (hopefully) before they become a major event. Save for a significant unscheduled maintenance event, this is doable. Then  you need to communicate to those with the money what is going on, and what actions that you recommend. If at 360 hours, the major inspection would be due in January 2015, but flying jumps to 400 annual hours: (1) major expenses in outlying years should already be noted and (2) the inspection costs need to be planned for well in advance. Tracking, reporting and understanding your costs are necessary to avoid financial surprises.

Budgets should be a financial tool that you use to manage the fiscal resources of your operation. It should not be a once and done exercise. Used appropriately, a budget should provide you with operating cost metrics that you can use to measure and manage your aircraft throughout the year.

Administrative Actions: The FAA's "Slap on the Wrist"

In past articles we have talked about FAA legal enforcement actions in which the FAA has suspended or revoked a mechanic's certificate or the certificate of an air carrier or repair station, or has assessed a civil penalty against the certificate holder.  In those situations, the FAA believed the regulatory violations committed by the certificate holders warranted the "pound of flesh" the FAA extracted with suspension or revocation of the offending party's certificate(s) or the assessed civil penalty.

But what happens when the FAA believes that compliance can best be obtained through some other action short of a legal enforcement action?   (Yes, it does happen.)  In those situations, the FAA has the option of addressing the certificate holder's alleged violations with a "slap on the wrist" through an administrative action.

When Does The FAA Use Administrative Action?

The decision of whether to use administrative action is usually made by the FAA inspector investigating the alleged violation, or his or her local office.  An FAA inspector may pursue an administrative action when the following criteria are satisfied:

1.         Where legal enforcement action is not required by law and administrative action would serve as an adequate deterrent to future violations;

2.         The violation does not indicate that the certificate holder lacks qualification to hold a certificate;

3.         The violation was inadvertent and was not the result of intentional conduct;

4.         The violation was not a substantial disregard for safety or security and the circumstances of the violation are not aggravated;

5.         The alleged violator has a constructive, compliance oriented attitude; and

6.         The alleged violation does not indicate a trend of noncompliance with, or a disregard for, the FAA’s regulations

Administrative Actions: The FAA's

By way of example, administrative action has been considered warranted in situations where a mechanic failed to make an appropriate approval for return to service maintenance record entry in an aircraft's logs after maintenance was performed or failed to accurately track airworthiness directive compliance in an aircraft's logs.  However, keep in mind that each situation is different.

And although FAA Order 2150.3B indicates that administrative action shouldn't be taken "solely as a matter of convenience or when evidence to support a finding of a violation is lacking, or in cases that are stale", in many cases I personally believe that is exactly what happens.  Thus, depending upon the facts and the FAA's analysis of the above six criteria, the FAA may not consider administrative action appropriate for all incidences of these examples of violations.

If the FAA determines that legal enforcement action is not necessary in a particular case, 14 C.F.R. § 13.11 provides the FAA with the authority to issue a warning letter or letter of correction.

The Warning Letter

The warning letter will identify the conduct at issue and the regulation(s) that the conduct allegedly violates.  The warning letter will usually state that the FAA expects the alleged violator's future compliance with the regulations.  It may also offer the opportunity for the certificate holder to submit additional information in explanation or mitigation for inclusion in the file, in the event that you hadn't already provided information in response to the letter of investigation which preceded the warning letter.

Although the warning letter is not a formal finding of violation, it stays in the certificate holder's file at the FAA for a period of two years and is then expunged from the file.  In the event of a future investigation or enforcement action prior to being expunged, the FAA will consider the warning letter when it decides how to proceed in that later case.

The Letter of Correction

The letter of correction is similar to a warning letter.  However, in addition to reciting the conduct and regulations that were allegedly violated, the letter of correction also contains an agreement under which the certificate holder agrees to take certain corrective action to address the alleged violation.  The corrective action may require the certificate holder to participate in remedial training or counseling with the FAA inspector, adopt policies or procedures to address deficiencies identified by the FAA, verify compliance with respect to matters that were not at issue in the investigation or take any other actions agreed to by the certificate holder and the FAA.

If the certificate holder fails to complete the agreed upon corrective action within the time period specified in the letter, the FAA could then proceed with legal enforcement action based upon the alleged violations.  Once completed, the letter of correction is included in the certificate holder's file at the FAA and will stay in the file for a period of two years until it is expunged.

As with the warning letter, the letter of correction is not a formal finding of violation.  However, in the event of a future investigation or enforcement action, the FAA will also take the letter of correction into consideration when it decides how to proceed in that later case.

Before agreeing to a letter of correction, it is important that the certificate holder understand the corrective action required and the criteria that will be used for determining whether action has been satisfactorily completed.  This will hopefully prevent a situation in which the certificate holder and the FAA disagree upon whether the certificate holder has completed the corrective action as required.

Conclusion

The slap on the wrist of an administrative action is definitely more acceptable to a certificate holder than having to defend against a certificate or civil penalty action, or having a finding of violation in the certificate holder's record.  Administrative action also makes more sense from an aviation safety perspective.  After all, are certificate holders actually going to be safer after a suspension or assessment of a civil penalty?  Probably not.

Unfortunately, up until recently it seemed like the majority of investigations resulted in the FAA pursuing enforcement action rather than resolving those cases through administrative action.  However, now, with the fiscal restraints imposed by sequester, it seems the FAA's use of administrative actions may increasing.  And that's good news, both for certificate holders and for aviation safety.

 

Unforecast Icing Conditions: How Would You React?

Unforecast Icing Conditions
Photo © UCAR

Winter usually means great flying weather, but the cold weather also brings its own set of challenges: Snowy runways, cold preflights and dangerous icing conditions. For general aviation pilots, one of the biggest risks of flying in cold weather is the possibility of structural icing.

According to AOPA, aircraft structural icing was the cause of more than 150 accidents over a recent period of 10 years. Icing can be present, even when it's not forecasted. As pilots, it's important to know about weather patterns and what to do should icing begin to develop on your aircraft in flight.

I read an accident case study recently that I think serves as a good reminder to stay alert for icing conditions, even if icing is not in the forecast. You can view the details of this particular accident case study, in which a pilot of a Cirrus SR22 en route from Reno/Tahoe International Airport (RNO) to Oakland, California encountered inadvertent structural icing conditions and crashed into mountainous terrain, here.

By all accounts, the pilot performed his preflight preparation responsibilities normally. According to AOPA's accident analysis, he spent time reviewing the weather, including a full weather briefing, which stated that there were no AIRMETs or SIGMETs or precipitation in the area. The Cirrus SR22 was even quipped with an icing protection system, although it was not approved for flight into known icing. So what went wrong?

The NTSB's probable cause report states that the cause of accident was the pilot's loss of control due to an inadvertent icing encounter. Interestingly, the report also cited an inaccurate weather report from the NWS Aviation Weather Center as a contributing factor.

While there was a low probability for icing conditions according to the NWS, there were a few red flags that may have changed the outcome for this Cirrus pilot if he took notice and reacted. For example, the weather briefer indicated a low freezing level of 6,000 feet and approaching precipitation, although it was dry at the time. Additionally, as the Cirrus departed, an incoming Southwest Airlines 737 reported unforecasted moderate rime icing at 17,000 feet. The weather report also stated cloud tops were between 17,000 and 20,000 feet - well above the service ceiling of the Cirrus. This should have alerted the pilot that climbing above the clouds wasn't an option.

This accident is testimony that as pilots, the more we know about weather and icing conditions, the safer we'll be. While forecasts are helpful, the lack of forecasted icing conditions doesn't always mean that we're in the clear. Below are a few reminders and tips for winter flying.

  • Know your aircraft systems: There's a difference between de-icing and anti-ice equipment, and there's a reason that many aircraft with anti-ice systems are still not approved for flight into known icing conditions. Research and learn about your aircraft's specific systems and how it will react in icing conditions.

  • Know your weather: There are a few items to pay close attention to in the weather briefing, such as cloud tops, freezing levels, and of course AIRMETs, SIGMETs and PIREPs. But a good review of weather theory is helpful in determining the effects of incoming weather systems and fronts, as well as certain areas like over mountains or near water, where icing is common.

  • Know when and where icing occurs: Icing usually forms when the aircraft surface (NOT the outside air temperature) is below freezing AND where there is visible moisture. Icing can also occur inside of a "wet" cloud - a cloud with super-cooled liquid water droplets in it.

  • Know what to do when you encounter icing: You have three options if you encounter icing in your aircraft: Climb, descend or turn around. Which one of these you choose will depend on the cloud height, temperatures and your location and terrain. (FYI: Contrary to what many people are told, climbing is not always the best option, as the case study above demonstrates!) If there's even a small chance that you'll encounter icing conditions on your flight, it's best to fully prepare beforehand with multiple exit strategies. Know the cloud tops, the temperatures and the locations of alternate airports. And always communicate to ATC immediately if you find yourself in an icing situation. The pilot in the case above failed to notify ATC when he experienced icing. Instead, he spent 10 minutes trying to trouble shoot on his own. Perhaps the controllers could've helped route him into a warmer, cloudless area had they known more about his situation.

 

For more tips and tricks about how to prevent icing and what to do if you encounter it, check out AOPA Safety Advisor: Aircraft Icing.

 

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