If you have not heard rumblings of new FAA guidance on operational control then you have either been sleeping for the last couple years or lost on a deserted island. There have been hundreds of discussions about operational control and understanding the whole picture is difficult at best. The effort here is to untangle the issue enough for us to get a clearer picture of what happened to cause the FAA to issue new guidance and what the new guidance really means to the Part 135 air carrier.
When a Part 135 operator receives authority from the FAA to conduct operations under Part 135, their authority comes in the form of an air carrier certificate as well as an operations specification (OpSpec). In addition, the operator must have produced the appropriate manuals that describe how the operation is to be run as well as how maintenance and operations will be kept in compliance with applicable federal regulations. The General Operations Manual (GOM) includes the air carrier’s instructions and policy on maintaining operational control.
The term “operational control,” seems pretty self-explanatory. Who is in control of the operation of the aircraft? Right? As defined by FAR Part 1: “Operational control, with respect to a flight, means the exercise of authority over initiating, conducting, or terminating a flight.”
Forever we have considered the pilot to be the person who has responsibility and authority to make decisions and exercise operational control over the aircraft. The pilot will take-off and land the aircraft and navigate as needed for the intended flight. Seems to make sense that the pilot is the one in control and therefore has operational control.
All of this is true; however, it is more complicated than that, and as business within our industry has and continues to evolve and change, more and more what-ifs emerge.
Rules governing operational control have been in place for quite some time. Following are a couple of those rules:
14 CFR Part 135.77
Responsibility for operational control
Each certificate holder is responsible for operational control and shall list, in the manual required by Sec. 135.21, the name and title of each person authorized by it to exercise operational control.
14 CFR Part 135.79
Flight locating requirements
(a) Each certificate holder must have procedures established for locating each flight, for which an FAA flight plan is not filed, that —
(1) Provide the certificate holder with at least the information required to be included in a VFR flight plan;
(2) Provide for timely notification of an FAA facility or search and rescue facility, if an aircraft is overdue or missing; and
(3) Provide the certificate holder with the location, date, and estimated time for reestablishing radio or telephone communications, if the flight will operate in an area where communications cannot be maintained.
(b) Flight locating information shall be retained at the certificate holder’s principal place of business, or at other places designated by the certificate holder in the flight locating procedures, until the completion of the flight.
(c) Each certificate holder shall furnish the representative of the Administrator assigned to it with a copy of its flight locating procedures and any changes or additions, unless those procedures are included in a manual required under this part.
However, some operators’ loose interpretation of the rules when faced with a new “what-if” scenario has caused concern for the FAA. The result is the new safety inspector guidance being discussed here, Notice N 8000.347 and subsequently Notice N 8900.4.
Who is in control?
Basically, several FAA field offices have found it difficult to put their finger on who really was in control of some operations being conducted by Part 135 certificate holders. For instance, it is not uncommon for a Part 91 aircraft owner to lease his aircraft out for operation under a Part 135 certificate. This sort of leasing arrangement, in and of itself, is not a problem and has long been a source of income that helps to offset the cost of owning an aircraft. When leasing out the aircraft, however, the Part 91 owner must not have operational control of the aircraft while it is being used by the certificate holder.