Say Goodnight, Gracie

George Burn’s and Gracie Allen’s genius in comedy was in their routines, where neither one understood the track the other’s conversation was going; nothing is funnier than listening to a confusing discussion going in two different directions. But no matter how exasperating it got, George would take a puff of his cigar and gesture toward the audience with the sign-off, “Say goodnight, Gracie.”

Misinterpretation isn’t always funny

George and Gracie were comedy legends; they were experts at sleight of tongue and employing verbal deception was their bread and butter. But in our field misinterpretation isn’t always so funny; when you speak about aircraft maintenance, confusion is best left to the experts. In my article, Submitted for Your Approval, I stated that regulations were being reviewed for future updating; that house cleaning initiative may be communicated through notices and orders, which may get adopted into policy. This will ensure the FAA is addressing the public’s concerns.

The ‘acceptable to’, ‘accepted by’, ‘approved’, and ‘approved by’ ambiguity issue stands out as a very popular head-slapper. In April 2011, the FAA published in its Flight Standards Information Management System (FSIMS) under Volume Six, Chapter Fourteen, policies on Technical Data. Following close behind that, the FAA is circulating the final draft of a Notice out for comment; it provides guidance on applying the four terms listed above correctly. A notice, like an order, is a “directive that the FAA uses to issue policy, instructions, and work information to its own people and designees.”

AFS-300 tackling the terms

AFS-300, the Aircraft Maintenance Division has chosen to tackle these terms, which have been irregularly employed, e.g. acceptable-to is missing from guidance but is used commonly in the regulations. By use of this Notice, AFS-300 expects to streamline the application of the expressions. Let’s look at these terms and use the interpretations agreed upon for the language being reviewed.

Acceptable To — “any item (data, methods, techniques and practices) that does not require specific FAA review and acceptance/approval before use.”

Accepted/Accepted By — “any item (data, methods, techniques and practices) not requiring specific FAA acceptance/approval but that is required to be submitted to the FAA for review prior to use.”

Approved (Approved By) — “the item (data, methods, techniques and practices) is required to be and has been reviewed and formally approved by the FAA (or appropriate civil aviation authority [CAA], or national aviation authority [NAA]). Approvals are granted only by letter, by a stamp of approval, or by other official means.”

Why it’s an issue

What isn’t clear to many is why approved and accepted are even an issue. A Thesaurus suggests that approve and accept are synonyms, or mean the same. But approved is more selective in its use; in the FARs it applies only to operational issues as found in 14 CFR 65, 91, 121, and 135. Acceptable or accepted are limited to documents like AC 43.13A where the methods, techniques, and practices used are acceptable-to the Administrator in the absence of manufacturer’s repair or maintenance instructions for continued airworthiness (ICA), which is, for the most part, acceptable data anyway.

(This is where George Burns would deadpan for the camera.) My critics would say I just contradicted myself. But what exactly is approved data? Approved technical data is composed of, but not limited to: test information, analyses, dimensions, material specifications, allowable damage, etc; approved technical data is also proprietary. That’s why you’ll only see the methods, techniques, and practices for, e.g. a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC), because the manufacturer is generally reluctant to give out the technical aspects of the approved data; they make money off it. It’s like giving away your award winning secret barbeque sauce; Sacrilege!

An ICA — like manufacturer’s maintenance manuals (MM) — is only required to be acceptable to the FAA, not approved. (NOTE: Airworthiness Limitations are the exception to this; they require approval.) The ICA information however is written using the technical data that was used to define the configuration and design features of the article, but more often than not, doesn’t contain the actual technical data as defined above.

What about an air carrier’s maintenance training or deice program? They’re approved. Kee-rect, but the burden is on the air carrier to determine how they will train, e.g. computer, stand up class, or OJT. Their fleet dictates the type of deicing they will accomplish and where. These programs are proprietary, but their concepts aren’t as guarded as an engineer’s investment in a design or product.

FAA review to determine which

Why accepted/acceptable? Either the FAA will determine the item to be acceptable for the intended use when and if the FAA reviews it or it will be accepted only after the FAA reviews it. When the item speaks to specific regulation sections, it is ensured the item is acceptable to the FAA.

An ICA for a STC is acceptable data because, again, the approved technical data is proprietary and not made available to the general public; not even the FAA FSDO has access to technical data behind a STC; it’s not necessary.

But let’s go back to the MM example: when a carrier receives the first MM for a brand new aircraft, e.g. the Boeing 7X7, it may receive incomplete manuals; pages might say the procedures are yet to be written. So let’s say the airlines are flying the 7X7 for six months and Boeing produces the procedures for changing a nose gear steering cylinder and they’re entered as a revision. Should the airlines ground the 7X7 until the FAA can review, test, and accept the procedures? No, because Boeing has the approved technical data developed during type certification of the product, it’s written the procedures and published them with oversight by the FAA Aircraft Certification Office.

Let’s look at two other terms:

Administrator and FAA

Acceptable to the Administrator – “items required to be acceptable to the Administrator do not require FAA review prior to a person using it. It is considered acceptable unless shown by the FAA to be unacceptable”; and,

Accepted by the FAA — “if it is a requirement that the FAA accepts items, the applicant must submit them to the FAA prior to use. If the submittal is unacceptable, the Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI) must inform the applicant in writing of the specific deficiencies based upon a regulatory section or paragraph. It is important to keep the applicant advised of the status of their proposal. Make it clear to the applicant/certificate holder that if the ASI takes no action or does not inform the applicant within an agreed time frame, that the submission is either deficient or accepted, the applicant may assume that the FAA has accepted the submission.”

Acceptable to the Administrator is an older version, but the FAA still must prove an item is unacceptable. Acceptable to the Administrator will eventually become Accepted by the FAA in the language; it just makes sense. It’s understood your ASI actually approves your designs or issues Airworthiness Certificates.

Technically, nothing is changing, though the intent of approved, accepted, and acceptable-to will gain more clarity. Because we’ll understand better what is being said in time we’ll put more confusion to bed. Then all that’s left to say is, “Goodnight, Gracie!”


Stephen Carbone is an aviation industry veteran of 28 years. He works at the Boston regional office in the Flight Standards Airworthiness Technical Branch. He holds a master’s degree in aviation safety systems.