Mandatory Service Bulletins?

By Bill O’Brien In an email from Joe Escobar, the editor of this magazine, he wrote: “There seems to be a trend for OEMs to cover their hind ends by incorporating language in their service bulletins that the service bulletin is an amendment to...


By Bill O’Brien

In an email from Joe Escobar, the editor of this magazine, he wrote: “There seems to be a trend for OEMs to cover their hind ends by incorporating language in their service bulletins that the service bulletin is an amendment to the maintenance manual/ICA, and is mandatory for “ongoing airworthiness compliance” under FAR 43.13.

“Where does this put the mechanic? In the FAA’s eyes, service letters, bulletins, etc.are not mandatory unless referenced in an AD. Would you like to address the issue in an article? What advice would you give mechanics?”

To begin, this problem of service bulletins being mandatory or not, has been around since the late ’70s. To examine the problem we have to look at three sides of the mandatory service bulletin issue: The manufacturer, the FAA, and the mechanic.

Manufacturer
It has been my experience that in the past when a manufacturer publishes a service bulletin and says it’s mandatory, or it says it is an amendment to its maintenance manual, or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness, that product it has produced has a “major” airworthiness defect. The problem today with this approach is that more and more service bulletins of all kinds now have “mandatory” stamped on them.

I believe the manufacturers go the mandatory route at the advice of their corporate lawyers for two reasons. First, even if the service bulletin talks about failures that happen on very high-time aircraft or the aircraft/part is used in unusual operating requirements like fire fighting or pipe line patrol and the chances of the same problem happening in normal operations is small, there is still a risk of being sued. So to offset the risk it is becoming more common for manufacturers to use the shotgun approach and make as many of their service bulletins mandatory.

The second reason is despite the FAA stance on mandatory service bulletins it can be effectively argued in civil court that the manufacturer did make a good faith effort to advise the owner of the aircraft/product’s defect by making the service bulletin mandatory. Judges and juries love the nice guy.
Even I must reluctantly agree that in this sue-crazy society where a lawyer can sue a Mom and Pop run cleaners in D.C. for $54 million for a lost pair of pants, this C.Y.A. approach on service bulletins makes good legal sense.

The FAA
Before I get started it is important that you understand the difference between an FAA order and an FAA advisory circular (AC) that I will quote in this article. An FAA order contains guidance to FAA field offices (FSDO/MIDO) on how FAA General Council (Legal) has interpreted a rule(s) and the mandatory policy for FAA inspectors to follow enforcing that rule(s). An FAA AC is not mandatory policy, but advisory in nature and describes one way, but not the only way, for industry to comply with a rule or policy.

I first did a little research on the FAA policy stance on mandatory service bulletins. By the way, the order and ACs mentioned in this article are available at the FAA regulatory and policy library at: http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies. I found that FAA policy goes back to Order 8620.2 Applicability and Enforcement of Manufacturers’ Data published on Nov. 2, 1978. Back then when I had hair, the big argument was whether or not service bulletins were mandatory. The background paragraph of the order states: There exists a difference of opinion among field inspectors concerning the manner in which manufacturer maintenance manual material including service letters and service bulletins, could be enforced by the FAA. FAR 43.13 requires all persons to use methods, techniques, and practices acceptable to the Administrator while performing aircraft maintenance. The manufacturer’s maintenance manuals, service bulletins, and service letters have always been regarded as a source of acceptable data for complying with 43.13(a)(b), however, such acceptability does not, in itself, impose an enforcement or mandatory compliance requirement. In the summary paragraph of the order it states that compliance with manufacturer’s maintenance instructions is required when:

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