Operational Control

How maintenance fits in

I read today that the FAA has extended the timeline in which it will be inspecting all charter operations specifications section A008 for compliance with operational control requirements. Although this is a good thing, some have already suffered consequences of not being able to demonstrate operational control to the FAA’s satisfaction.

Certificate franchising
The most serious consequence is what the FAA refers to as “certificate franchising.” FAA Order 8900.16 defines this by saying that the “Certificate holder is allowing non-certificated entities to conduct operations as if they held a certificate.” This results in the revocation of the air carrier’s certificate.

Operational control
Demonstrating operational control is pretty straight forward. I highly recommend reading FAA Orders 8900.4 - Guidance for Operations Specifications A002 and A008: Operational Control, and 8900.16 Special Emphasis Inspection: Operational Control. FAA orders are written to the safety inspector to provide guidance on how to enforce policy. Order 8900.16 spells out the enforcement actions to be taken dependent upon the infraction.

Although I believe that most charter operators have a handle on operational control, I also know that being asked to demonstrate it may be a challenge. Who pays the pilots? Who owns the aircraft? Who knows the maintenance status of the aircraft? When is the next maintenance event? Is it scheduled? Are there any deferred MEL items? Who carries the insurance? Are there restrictions associated with the MEL? Are the mechanics that work on the aircraft currently enrolled in a random pooling for drug testing under an FAA-approved drug testing program? The list goes on and on. Order 8900.4 provides a clear description of what the FAA is looking for.

To have operational control means that you have control of the operation. (Duh.) Actually, FAR Part 1 provides the following definition:

Operational control, with respect to a flight, means the exercise of authority over initiating, conducting, or terminating a flight.

What all does the “operation” really include? Putting an aircraft into operation has long been thought to be synonymous with placing an aircraft into service. Often there have been discussions about the terms “return to service” and “approval for return to service” as they pertain to maintenance performed. Maintenance personnel, for example, can only approve for return to service. The actual return to service activity is to taxi the aircraft to the runway, push the throttles forward, and lift off from the runway. This is why we count flight time from lift-off to touchdown. The term operation expands beyond “in-service.” We need to think of the operation beginning with the conception of the flight and ending with the completion of the flight. In such case, we include all planning activities as well as the flight of the aircraft.

The regulations have been around forever (figuratively speaking) and are intended to assure the safety of aircraft operation. The requirement for having operational control is really nothing new. What the current operational control issue does for our industry is delineate the boundary around the flight of an aircraft that defines when operational control begins and ends.

With my passion being in maintenance and maintenance planning, I think that the FAA has not put enough emphasis on assuring the airworthiness of the aircraft itself as a function of operational control which, of course, begins with maintenance tracking and planning. The primary focus has been to address the inappropriate use of other people’s airplanes for charter operations.

Scheduled maintenance
Long before the aircraft leaves the ground, there is a level of maintenance that we are responsible for. By regulation that maintenance is required whether the aircraft operates under Part 135 or Part 91. The scheduled maintenance requirements are nearly identical for large and multi-turbine powered aircraft. Almost every maintenance item defined by the manufacturer to be a requirement on an aircraft is scheduled to be accomplished at some recurring frequency. This is called scheduled maintenance.

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