It's Easy, Just Change The Rule

The repercussions of changing rules can be like either a ripple or a tsunami, the effects felt throughout many industries and lives, not just aviation.

In conversations with mechanics, pilots, air traffic controllers, and flight attendants, I think the six words I hear most often are, “It’s easy, just change the rule.” Barney and Andy said it down at Floyd’s barber shop and … well, maybe not Andy, but Barney was raising cane and threatening to get out his bullet. Go get Thelma-Lou! But all these folks have the same opinion for saving the world of aviation as we know it: just change rules.

To change rules (or regulations) takes an act(ion) of Congress, specifically Title 5 published by the Office of Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives. The FAA, a branch of the Department of Transportation, gets our marching orders from Congress, who provides funding. Considering how slow the wheels of government turn, the changing of a rule isn’t a simple matter. I asked Kim Barnette of AFS-300: what’s the price tag to change a rule? It depends on the change; it could take three years and cost $200,000 or two years costing $2,000,000. Complex rulemaking may take many years before completion.

Recent events raise the will of government agencies, advocacy groups, and accident victims’ families into the headlines; their initiatives are personal, the importance unquestionable, and their agendas are to honor those lost; I won’t trivialize their motives. But the repercussions of changing rules can be like either a ripple or a tsunami, the effects felt throughout many industries and lives, not just aviation.

Rule adjustment vs. change

A recommendation may initiate a rule adjustment, because not all recommendations rise to rule changes. Most recommendations can be satisfied through other methods, e.g. policy revisions, which are handled internally and meted out to offending certificates without affecting everyone else; regional procedural modifications can funnel surveillance to saturate a certificate for a local problem. What about statute (law) changes? If the NTSB recommends a statute change, the FAA can’t help; only the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government can change statutes.

The U.S. Congress assigns rulemaking to the FAA, who gathers the professional resources vital to making rule changes, e.g. in FAA Order 1110.139B, which focuses on performance-based rulemaking; changing rules to meet assumed needs. So how does a rule get changed? Let’s reference Title 5, Part 1, Chapter 5, subchapter III: the FAA (being a government agency) may “establish a rulemaking committee to negotiate and develop a proposed rule.” A rule change begins its life as a focus group. In its infancy, a change requires subject matter experts (SME) to study that change’s cause and effect, analyze costs to the industry, legal ramifications to all involved (especially the flying public), and if the rule change will continue to be effective down line a few years.

Analyzing the cost

Now everyone in this industry lives in or near a place known as Beancounterville: all of us account for each action accomplished. If you change a tire which aircraft is charged, how long did it take to overhaul an actuator, who worked it, or who is this annual charged to? Every aspect of our workday is itemized.

When we opt to change a rule, the dollars allotted to that project must also be accounted for, thus the multimillion dollar price tag. Each team member is given their assignments; some are more tedious than others, requiring research or analysis that is involved. Let’s say a maintenance training rule was highlighted. The analysis might look at: locations, industry standards, feasibility, and/or the different impacts on 121, 135, or 145 certificate holders. This is a time-intensive part of the process.

Meetings and information

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