Are you one of the estimated 778 unfortunate aircraft owners affected by the latest Lycoming airworthiness directive (“AD”)? If you are, I am hopeful this article will help you navigate your current situation.
The Airworthiness Directive
On August 4, 2017 Lycoming issued a “Mandatory Service Bulletin” requiring inspection, and potentially replacement, of connecting rod bushings in certain Lycoming engines that had been overhauled or repaired using replacement parts. The MSB identified the potentially affected engines and replacement parts, and it also included instructions for completing the inspection as well as the installation of replacement connecting rod small end bushings. It also indicated that the inspection and/or replacement be performed within the next 10 hours of engine operation.
As we know, although a manufacturer may state that its service bulletin is “mandatory,” for most operators flying their aircraft strictly under Part 91, service bulletins are not, in fact, mandatory. So, when it was issued, the MSB wasn’t mandatory for most Part 91 operators.
Unfortunately, the FAA received 5 reports of uncontained engine failures and in-flight shut downs due to failed connecting rods on certain Lycoming engine models identified in the MSB. Based upon its evaluation of the information available to it, the FAA determined that an unsafe condition existed or could develop in products of the same type design. As a result, on August 10, 2017 the FAA issued the AD with respect to the Lycoming engines requiring compliance with the MSB in order to prevent uncontained engine failure, total engine power loss, in-flight shut downs, and possible loss of the aircraft.
And, as we also know, an airworthiness directive is mandatory, regardless of the particular regulations under which you are operating. So, if your aircraft’s Lycoming engine is one of those specified in the MSB/AD you have no choice but to comply with the AD if you want your aircraft to be airworthy.
Cost of Compliance
According to the AD, the FAA anticipates that initial compliance with the AD (the inspection of the connecting rod small bushings) will cost engine owners approximately $1,425 in parts and labor. If connecting rod replacement is required, the FAA estimates the additional parts and labor costs will range from $2,170.00 for a four cylinder engine up to $6,850.00 for an eight cylinder engine. Of course, these are just estimates and they do not take into consideration any warranty coverage or variations in the costs of parts or labor.
Fortunately, this AD isn’t as extensive, or expensive, as the 2006 Lycoming crankshaft airworthiness directive. That airworthiness directive required replacement of the crankshaft in approximately 3,774 engines to the tune of about $16,000 per engine.
So, what are your options if your options if this AD applies to your engine?
One option is to pursue a warranty claim with Lycoming. Lycoming has several types of warranties: New and Rebuilt Engine Warranty; New Non-Certified Warranty; Overhauled Engine Warranty; and Replacement Parts Warranty. You will need to determine which warranty applies to your engine and then file a claim with Lycoming. Lycoming will then determine whether you have coverage and, if so, to what extent. Although I haven’t reviewed Lycoming’s various warranty programs, the coverage typically includes parts only. And it certainly does not cover loss of use or other losses an engine owner may suffer as a result of the AD.
If you don’t have warranty coverage, or if you are unsatisfied with the warranty coverage applicable to your engine, you could also consider suing Lycoming to try and recover the costs of complying with the AD and any other losses you suffer as a result of the AD. However, given the anticipated cost of compliance, unless you have other significant losses as a direct result of the AD, the cost of litigation would likely exceed your losses with no guaranty of recovery. (Although given the number of affected engines, I wouldn’t be surprised if some owners attempted a class action lawsuit against Lycoming).
Also keep in mind that manufacturer’s warranties typically include language making the warranty your sole remedy and excluding your ability to pursue other claims for recovery against the manufacturer. So I would anticipate that Lycoming would raise this and other legal defenses in responding to any lawsuits. But litigation is certainly an option, although not necessarily a practical or preferred option.
As you may recall, the Lycoming crankshaft airworthiness directive resulted in numerous lawsuits brought by engine owners against Lycoming. Of course the cost of compliance for that airworthiness directive was significantly higher than the current AD, which certainly made the economic analysis for litigation more attractive in that situation. Some lawsuits were brought by engine owners in their individual capacities, and others sought class action status on behalf of all affected engine owners. Lycoming also sued its crankshaft manufacturer, although it ultimately lost the case.
The bottom line for most engine owners affected by this AD is that they will need to comply in order for their aircraft to remain airworthy. How or whether they are able to recover their costs of compliance will initially depend upon how Lycoming handles the warranty issues. If Lycoming doesn’t treat its customers fairly, I would anticipate at least some litigation. However, whether such litigation will be successful is hard to say at this point in time.
If you ever find yourself in this position, it is important to understand that you do not have to make that call. You are under no legal obligation (regulation or otherwise) to place the call. The request is not an ATC instruction under FAR §91.123. So, if you don't want to call you don't have to. But just because you don't have to call, that doesn't mean you shouldn't call. You need to analyze your situation and understand the pros/cons of making the call before you decide to simply ignore ATC's request.
Why does ATC want you to call?
For starters, ATC wants to obtain your personal information so they know who was flying the aircraft. Although ATC may have the aircraft's registration number, it may not know who was flying the aircraft. This is especially true if the flight was a VFR flight without a flight plan. Also, if the aircraft is a rental or club aircraft available to multiple pilots, ATC won't necessarily know which of those pilots is actually flying the aircraft. So, ATC wants to identify the pilot and obtain his or her information. And if you make the call, you will be providing the FAA with the connection between the aircraft operation and you, the pilot.
ATC may also want to discuss what happened. Depending upon the circumstances, it is possible that providing ATC with an explanation of what happened will resolve the situation. If the situation resulted from a simple mistake or flawed procedure, ATC may provide some informal counseling to ensure that you don't end up in the same situation in the future, and that will be the end of it. Under the FAA's new compliance philosophy, this would be considered a "compliance action." However, if the situation was more complicated or severe (e.g. an intentional deviation that resulted in loss of separation) that isn't the type of situation that would be handled as a compliance action. In that case, you may not want to make the call.
What happens to the information you provide during the call?
If you decide to make the call, you need to understand a couple of key points. First, the call will be recorded. So, the FAA will have a record of what you say during the call. Second, the FAA will use the information you provide to determine how it is going to handle the situation. That could be good for you or it could be bad, depending upon what happened and what you say. If it is bad, the FAA will not hesitate to use the information you provided against you in an enforcement action.
Should you make the call?
If you are asked to contact ATC after a flight you need to answer a number of questions to determine whether it makes sense to make the call:
- What happened?
- Why did it happen? Did it result from a simple mistake, flawed procedure etc.?
- Is ATC able to connect you, the pilot, with the flight operation?
- Is it the type of situation that the FAA should handle as a "compliance action"?
When you are considering these questions, it may make sense to discuss the matter with an aviation attorney. He or she should be able to help you analyze the situation to determine whether calling ATC will help or hurt you and, if it makes sense, what you should and shouldn't say if you do decide to make the call. You should also make sure to file your ASRS Form with NASA so you can potentially benefit from the FAA's Aviation Safety Reporting Program.
The good news is that the FAA's new compliance philosophy is resulting in fewer enforcement actions in cases of simple pilot deviations where the pilot does decide to make the call. The bad news is that you now have more to consider before you decide whether you should or should not make the call. If you find yourself in this situation, make sure you think things through and get the advice you need BEFORE you make the call.
A scenario I see more regularly than I would like involves an aircraft management company that manages a turbojet aircraft and provides pilot services to multiple users of the aircraft. Since the managed aircraft is capable of flight up to and beyond flight level 41,000, the aircraft needs FAA approval to operate in the Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (“RVSM”) flight levels from 29,000 feet to 41,000 feet. For reasons that are not always clear to me, the management company applies for and obtains an RVSM letter of authorization (“LOA”) in its own name for the aircraft, but then operates the aircraft on behalf of the operators. And, unfortunately, by doing so it has exposed not only itself, but also the operators to the wrath of the FAA for violations of the regulations.
In order to understand why this is the case, we need to first look at why an LOA, or its counterpart letter of deviation authority (“LODA”), is necessary. LOAs and LODAs are issued to Part 91 operators to provide authority to operate in a particular manner. An LOA authorizes an operator to engage in a particular activity, such as operation in RVSM airspace. A LODA permits an operator to deviate from a regulatory requirement with which the operator would otherwise be required to comply, such as permitting an instructor to operate an experimental aircraft for hire for the purposes of type-specific training. LOAs/LODAs are generally only applicable to Part 91 operators. (Operators under Parts 121, 133, 135 etc. receive similar authority in the form of operations specifications or waivers.)
LOAs and LODAs are “voluntary” and are issued by the FAA based on certain specific situations. That is, an operator doesn’t have to request an LOA or LODA unless the operator wants to do something that requires FAA authorization. In the RVSM context, if a Part 91 aircraft operator wants to operate in RVSM airspace, the operator will need to obtain the necessary LOA. But the aircraft operator is also free to avoid operating in RVSM airspace, in which case the operator would not need an RVSM LOA.
A Part 91 operator is the party who has “operational control” of the aircraft for a particular flight. What does that mean? Well, 14 C.F.R. 1.1 states “[o]perational control, with respect to a flight, means the exercise of authority over initiating, conducting or terminating a flight.” Thus, the FAA takes the position that the true operator of the aircraft is the party who has operational control for a particular flight.
Why does operational control matter when we are talking about LOAs and LODAs? Because LOAs/LODAs must be issued to the “operator” of the aircraft, i.e., the party that exercises operational control during the flight. And the party with operational control may not necessarily be the owner or manager of the aircraft.
For example, when we are looking at operation in RVSM airspace, 14 C.F.R. §§ 91.180 and 91.706 state in part:
“ . . . no person may operate a civil aircraft (of U.S. registry) in airspace designated as Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) airspace unless:
The operator and the operator’s aircraft comply with the requirements of appendix G of [Part 91]; and
The operator is authorized by the Administrator to conduct such operations.”
Thus, identifying the party who is the operator of the aircraft is critical because that dictates who must have the authorization.
So, who should apply for and be issued an LOA/LODA? Registered owners who are conducting personal or business flights under Part 91 for their non-air-transportation use; and parties assuming operational control under “dry” lease or use agreements such as Part 91 and Part 135 operator lessees conducting operations under Part 91. Keep in mind that if multiple parties are operating the aircraft, multiple LOAs/LODAs may be required!
Who should not apply for or be issued an LOA/LODA? “Flight Department Companies” (e.g., holding companies/single purpose entities); Owner Trustees (e.g. where a trust is the registered owner of the aircraft but the aircraft is operated by the party holding the beneficial interest in the trust); and Part 91 aircraft management companies that simply assist aircraft owners and Part 91 operators with their ownership and/or operation of the aircraft.
What can you as an operator do to make sure you have the necessary authority you may need or want from the FAA? First, do your research! Make sure you understand both your and the FAA’s obligations in the LOA/LODA process. Next, when you are applying for an LOA/LODA ensure that your application is as complete and correct as possible. (Remember, garbage in = garbage out). If necessary, ask for meeting with FAA personnel to submit your application in person. And finally, follow-up with the FAA on a regular basis to confirm the status of your application and whether the FAA has questions or needs additional information to process the application.
If you are a flightcrew member for an air carrier operating under 14 C.F.R. Part 121 you know that 14 C.F.R. Part 117 contains flight, duty, and rest regulations that apply to all Part 121 passenger operations. One specific regulation, Section 117.5(d), requires a flightcrew member to “affirmatively state that he or she is fit for duty prior to commencing flight.” Section 117.3 defines “fit for duty” as “physiologically and mentally prepared and capable of performing assigned duties at the highest degree of safety.” What does that mean?
Unfortunately, no objective science-based standard currently exists for measuring fatigue levels. As a result, Section 117.5 doesn’t say just how fatigued a flightcrew member must be in order for him or her to be “unfit for duty.” Rather, the regulation simply states that an individual flightcrew member is “fit for duty” if he or she is capable of safely performing his or her assigned duties. According to the FAA, this determination must be made by each individual flightcrew member based upon a variety of factors, such as the length and difficulty of the flight duty assignment, time of day, and the flightcrew member's self-knowledge of how he or she deals with different levels of fatigue.
Which means flightcrew members’ fit for duty determinations are subjective. But, according to the FAA, this subjectivity “is mitigated by the fact that flightcrew members will undergo fatigue education and awareness training, which will increase each flightcrew member's ability to self-assess his or her fatigue levels.”
So, how does this apply in specific situations? For example, what if the flightcrew member is slightly fatigued at the end of a flight duty period (“FDP”)? Does that mean the flightcrew member should not have accepted the flight assignment? The FAA says “no.” Given the various individual factors that go into a fitness for duty determination, the FAA will not categorically say that a slight amount of fatigue that appears at the end of an FDP would always render a flightcrew member unfit for duty. As long as the flightcrew member is able to affirmatively state at the beginning of the FDP that he or she is fit for duty, then the flightcrew member may accept the assigned flight duty.
What about when the flightcrew member has been awake for 16, 18 or even 24 continuous hours prior to accepting the assigned flight duty? If the flightcrew member certifies that he or she is fit for duty in that situation is that a violation of the regulation? Here again, the FAA says “not necessarily.” Although it is significantly more likely that a person who has been awake for such an extended period of time will not be fit for duty, the regulations do not necessarily preclude the flightcrew member from accepting an assigned flight duty under those circumstances. The flightcrew member must still make an individualized determination and consider, as one factor along with others, the amount of time that the flightcrew member has been continuously awake.
Another common situation arises when an FDP involves more than one flight segment. If the flightcrew member is fit for duty at the beginning of the first flight segment but later determines he or she is not fit for duty before starting a subsequent flight segment during that FDP, then what? Since Section 117.5(d) requires a flightcrew member to reassess whether he or she is fit for duty prior to each flight segment, in that situation the flightcrew member would not be permitted to fly the subsequent flight segment. Similarly, if a flightcrew member reports for an FDP and is fit for duty at that time but that FDP is later extended, the flightcrew member must then reassess whether he or she can continue to serve on the extended FDP.
Thus, in order to be “fit for duty”, flightcrew members must decide, both at the beginning of an FDP and during that FDP that they are mentally and physically prepared and capable of safely performing their assigned duties and then take any necessary steps to comply with the rule. Flightcrew members should use their best judgment to make that determination and then act accordingly.
Owners of business aircraft frequently face the question of whether their aircraft should be operated under 14 C.F.R. Part 91 (“Part 91”) or Part 135 (“Part 135”). And it isn’t uncommon for owners to simplistically choose Part 91 because they have been led to believe that Part 135 is far too expensive and restrictive. Unfortunately, that answer isn’t necessarily the correct answer for all circumstances. The question is more complicated and requires a thorough analysis of the facts.
Generally speaking, it is true that aircraft may be operated under Part 91 with fewer restrictions and regulatory requirements than when operating under Part 135. However, from a risk management perspective, Part 135 exposes the charter customer to the least amount of regulatory and legal liability risk. As a result, it is necessary to understand the key distinctions between operations under Parts 91 and 135 in order to determine how they apply to a particular situation.
Let’s look at some of the differences between Part 91 and 135:
The operator of an aircraft has primary legal liability for injury to persons or property arising from an aircraft accident or incident regardless of whether the operation is conducted under Part 91 or Part 135. The operator is the party who exercises authority over initiating, conducting or terminating a flight (“Operational Control”). The operator of the flight has legal liability whether the operator is the actual owner of the aircraft or merely a lessee.
An entity that owns an aircraft may operate that aircraft under Part 91 as long as (1) that operation is incidental to its business, and (2) the operator is paying for those operations out of its normal revenue without receiving compensation or reimbursement from some other person or entity. That is, the entity must derive at least 51% of its revenue from business that is unrelated to its use of the aircraft, and then use and pay for that use incidental to that primary business activity. In such a situation the entity is exercising Operational Control of the aircraft and as the operator it has liability for its operation of the aircraft.
Expanding on this concept, an entity whose sole purpose is to own the aircraft (an “SPE”) may not operate the aircraft without certification from the FAA to act as an air carrier, i.e., it must have a “Part 135 certificate.” However, it is common under the FAA’s rules for an SPE to own the aircraft solely for the purpose of leasing it to other parties. For example, an aircraft may be owned by an SPE and then leased to an individual or business lessee who will then operate the aircraft under Part 91 pursuant to a “dry-lease,” with, as noted above, such lessee’s use being incidental to the lessee’s primary non-aviation-related business. A dry-lease is a lease for the aircraft alone, without crew, and may be with or without fuel, with the lessee then being responsible for providing its own flight crew either directly (e.g. lessee’s employee(s)), or hired as independent contractors from an outside source (e.g. a pilot services or aircraft management company). In this situation, the lessee is exercising Operational Control, and as the operator of the aircraft it has assumed all regulatory and civil liability for each of its operations of the aircraft under the lease (regardless of how it obtained its pilots, who performs the maintenance, and so forth).
Conversely, where the Part 135 certificate holder exercises Operational Control over the aircraft and all flights, that Part 135 certificate holder has assumed regulatory and civil legal liability for injury to persons or property arising from an aircraft accident or incident. Passengers on the aircraft do not have legal liability.
An aircraft owner, whether SPE or otherwise, may lease an aircraft to a Part 135 certificate holder under a dry-lease. The Part 135 operator then provides the crew (either using the Part 135 operator’s employees or independent contractors who are then agents of the Part 135 operator) and conducts operations pursuant to its Part 135 certificate. In most cases the entity that owns the aircraft will not have any legal liability for the Part 135 certificate holder’s operation of the aircraft.
In addition to risk management, various differences between operational conditions and limitations under Parts 91 and Part 135 must also be considered. These include:
- Airport Limitations:
- Runway Length Requirements.
Part 91 - Runway length requirements are determined solely by aircraft requirements and limitations.
Part 135 - The aircraft must be capable of landing within 80% of the runway length. This affects/limits access to a significant number of smaller airports that may be more conveniently located to the ultimate destination.
- Weather Reporting.
Part 91 - An aircraft may begin an instrument approach to airports where there is no weather reporting and the pilots determine when they approach the airport whether they can land safely. Additionally, an aircraft may depart from an airport below IFR weather minimums.
Part 135 - An aircraft may not begin an approach to an airport that has no weather reporting facility unless the alternate airport has approved weather reporting. This may not only adversely impact whether or when a flight may depart, but it again has the potential to limit access to airports that are more conveniently located to the ultimate destination. Takeoff and alternate airport minimums also restrict whether and when a flight may be conducted.
- Flightcrew Member Restrictions:
- Pilot Agency.
Under both Parts 91 and 135 Flightcrew members must be agents of the party exercising operational control. This agency may be established by employment or contract. Flightcrew members who are employees of an entity other than the Part 135 certificate holder may be paid by their employer and still be agents of the Part 135 certificate holder provided the flightcrew members have entered into an appropriate agency agreement with the Part 135 certificate holder.
- Flightcrew member Duty Time Limitations and Rest Requirements.
Part 91 - Flightcrew member duty time and rest requirements are not imposed. This means the flightcrew members may operate the aircraft on multiple flights as long as they feel they are adequately rested and safe to fly.
Part 135 - Flightcrew members are requirement to comply with specific duty time and rest requirements. The rules are complicated, but generally provide for a maximum assigned 14 hour duty day, limitations on the number of flight hours during a 24-hour period and required rest periods. Once a flightcrew member has reached his or her limit, that flightcrew member may not fly until the applicable rest requirements have been satisfied.
- Drug and Alcohol Testing.
Part 91 - Drug and alcohol testing of flightcrew members is not required.
Part 135 - Certificate holders must comply with the same drug and alcohol testing requirements as air carriers operating under Part 121. Flightcrew members are subject to pre-employment/transfer, random, reasonable suspicion/cause, post-accident, return to duty, and follow up drug and alcohol testing pursuant to the Part 135 operator’s drug and alcohol testing program.
- Restrictions and Fees in Foreign Countries:
Part 91 - Operations may be subject to some additional fees, but are typically not required to obtain additional licensing to operate in foreign countries.
Part 135 – Certificate holders operating within foreign countries are subject to bilateral air transport agreements between the U.S. and those countries. These agreements subject the Part 135 operator to fees, regulations and additional licensing imposed by foreign countries for its commercial operations. The fees are typically passed on to the customer, increasing the cost of the charter flight.
- Maintenance and Equipment:
Any U.S. registered aircraft must be maintained under some form of approved maintenance program. Under Part 91 this is typically done under the manufacturer’s basic recommended maintenance program, and so long as the operator meets those requirements, no further compliance or oversite by the FAA is required. Under Part 135, the aircraft must be maintained in accordance with a program that has been specifically approved by the FAA for that particular operator, and while these plans are commonly based on a manufacturer’s programs, they also typically include additional requirements imposed on top of the manufacturer’s requirements. Thus, depending upon the age and condition of the aircraft and whether it is currently enrolled in any maintenance or warranty programs, the cost of maintenance for an aircraft operated under Part 135 is potentially higher than if the aircraft were operated solely under Part 91. Because a Part 135 certificate holder cannot operate an aircraft unless it can document that the aircraft has been continuously maintained under its FAA-approved program, the practical effect of this is that if the aircraft is held in an SPE and then leased to both a Part 91 operator for its occasional use and to a Part 135 certificate holder for its use, then the aircraft will need to be maintained at all times under the approved Part 135 program, so the cost differential between Part 91 and Part 135 maintenance programs will largely become irrelevant.
- TSA Security Requirements:
Part 91 – Operations are not subject to TSA security program requirements. Part 91 operators are not permitted to operate within sterile areas at airports.
Part 135 - Certificate holders operating aircraft with a gross take-off weight in excess of 12,500 pounds are required to have a TSA approved security program in place. The Part 135 operator’s flightcrew members are subject to criminal history records checks and certain training requirements. The security program requires timely transmittal of crew and passenger lists in advance of flights. This means that last-minute changes of passengers on a particular flight is usually not possible. Also, if the flight will be enplaning or deplaning within the sterile area of an airport then additional screening requirements must be met.
As you can see, operations under Parts 91 or 135 have both advantages and disadvantages. Owners and operators of business aircraft need to carefully consider each in the context of their own circumstances. An in-depth discussion with a knowledgeable aviation attorney is also recommended to make sure their decision is the right one for their situation.