Getting Rid of Older Aircraft: Buybacks or lawsuits by owners?

Getting Rid Of Older Aircraft
Buybacks or lawsuits by owners?

By Stephen P. Prentice

Steve PrenticeIn case you missed it, Cessna has quietly added a huge SID (Supplementary Inspection Document) to its Maintenance/Service Manual for the 400 Series piston aircraft early this year. But don't think that it will mean tons of work for us. Read on.

This should come as no surprise since it has been apparent for some time that many manufacturers have sought a method to get rid of aircraft that they perceive as threats to their pocketbooks. Apparently Cessna and others have found a way! But Cessna is the first of the crowd to set in stone a formal method to make aircraft maintenance too costly for ownership and operation. Indeed, one recent commentator stated, "If I were an OEM these days, I would be looking carefully at the older models in my fleets and figuring out how to get these airplanes out of circulation." Looks like they may have!

The justification
"Motherhood, apple pie, and safety. It's tough to argue against it . . ."

The data supposedly revealed by a multimillion dollar research grant (cash) by the FAA to Cessna is the alleged "justification" for Cessna's new inspection requirements and soon to be published AD's drafted and requested by Cessna, aimed at the 400, 300 Series fleet.

By the time this article is published yet another NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) comment period on an AD will have passed (Dec. 8) and unless extended, the AD involved will undoubtedly be published as set out in the NPRM. (Spar Strap on 400 Series.)

There seems little doubt that all of these steps will have more to do with getting rid of the aircraft than they do with safety. No substantial accident justification has been provided by Cessna or the FAA regarding these aircraft. In fact, the FAA and Cessna both have refused to provide the results of the studies that are supposed to be the backup for their actions.

The SIDs
The SID (supplemental inspection documents) for the 421, 421A, and 421B was published in March and distributed as a revision/supplement. It applies to all of that fleet. A separate SID was published Jan. 6, 2003 for the 421C Model equally applicable to the whole fleet and tracking the SID for the earlier aircraft.

The SIDs are described as a supplemental structural inspection program and stated as being developed by Cessna, 400 Series operators, and the FAA. I can just imagine an operator agreeing to these inspections. Right.

The purpose and objective as written is the detection of damage due to fatigue, overload, or corrosion through the practical use of NDI (nondestructive testing) as well as visual inspection. The SID addresses primary and secondary airframe components only. These are described as PSE's or principal structural elements. PSE's are defined as components that carry significant flight and ground loads, and if they fail, cause catastrophic destruction of the airframe. Monitoring of these PSE's is the reason for the SIDs.

The requirements for the performance of the extensive inspections are based on total flight hours and calendar years in service. Most of the fleet already exceed the calendar years if not the hours, required for the inspections.

SID #53-10-01 pressurized cabin structures
For example, under the heading of Pressurized Cabin Structure, SID #53-10-01, an initial inspection is to be performed at 6,000 hours or 12 years. Needless to say all of the fleet has been in service beyond 12 years! (Cessna stopped making 421s in 1985.) A repeat inspection is due every 3,600 hours or every seven years. Since all of the fleet is impacted, here is what must be done according to the SID:

1. Inspect all cabin entry door and emergency exit door frame structures and surrounding structures for corrosion, cracks, loose or missing fasteners, or any sign of deterioration.
2. Inspect all window frames and surrounding structures for corrosion, cracks, etc.
3. Inspect the entire forward and aft pressure bulkheads for corrosion, cracks, etc. Eddy current the forward and aft pressure bulkhead structures for corrosion, cracks, etc.
4. Inspect all cabin frame structure for corrosion, cracks, etc.
5. Inspect the entire forward and rear spar bulkheads for corrosion, cracks, etc.

Most mechanics that I have talked with about this small part of the total SID inspection agree that this disassembly and re-assembly of the areas described would involve at least 80 to 120 man-hours. Additional time for the eddy current specialists to complete their inspection of the pressure bulkheads would be required. Any repairs that are found necessary would of course extend the downtime. A complete teardown and rebuild of the interior upholstery would be required. Priced a headliner lately? The total cost of the whole SID inspection would far exceed the value of some of the aircraft! Get the idea?

Some report that the time required for the complete SID inspection would be tantamount to an extensive airline C or D check. Some have estimated three to four months to complete the inspections assuming no major repairs are performed! Total labor cost alone is estimated at beyond $100,000. The average shop could not even attempt these inspections simply because it would tie up maintenance crews for too long on one aircraft. Specialty shops will be needed to do nothing but the SID work on the 400 Series.

In addition to the pressure cabin SID, there are numerous other disassembly and inspection requirements that will add hundreds of man-hours to the work required.
Can owners and operators afford all this?

Aging aircraft

Ever since a 737 lost part of its upper fuselage some years ago there has been an inordinate focus by manufacturers and the FAA on corrosion and structural failures. Never mind that this accident aircraft had been hauling fish drenched in salt water around the western Pacific and was exposed to corrosion for years.

Many have privately mentioned that manufacturers have finally hit on a way to sell new airplanes and get rid of the older ones.

In a recent publication the FAA stated: "The General Aviation fleet is being used well beyond the flight hours and years envisioned when the airplanes were designed. There is concern that continued airworthiness safety matters will become more common as the fleet ages. These airplanes could develop serious age-related problems as they continue to be used well beyond their design life . . ."

Best Practices Guide For Maintaining Aging General Aviation Aircraft, September 2003

It does not take much to see where the manufacturers and the FAA are going with this.

Airworthiness Directives

Based on the described engineering analysis and some reports from the field, the FAA (Cessna) has determined that additions to already existing AD's are necessary.
The FAA has published AD 79-10-15R2, which requires repetitive inspections of the right and left wing spar lower cap areas for fatigue cracks on the Model 401, 402, and 411 Series aircraft and mandates wing spar cap repairs where necessary.

402C and 414A aircraft have a similar design to the above aircraft so Cessna decided that it would add AD 2000-23-01, in November 2000 to include the Model 402C and require repetitive inspections of the forward, aft, and auxiliary wing spars for cracks. The Model 414A was not included at that time.

Now it will include extensive eddy current inspections on both the 402C and 414A Series aircraft.

In addition, on May 15, 2003, the FAA published NPRM 2002-CE-05-AD and 2002-CE-57-AD that is designed to require owners and operators of models 401, 402, 411, and 414 aircraft, all models, including wet wings, to reinforce their lower spar caps by installation of a spar cap strap kit. It is estimated that this will cost anywhere from $60,000 to $70,000.

These modifications are only a beginning. Over the next two years the FAA (Cessna) intends to require that the whole fleet of both 400 and 300 Series aircraft be modified in accord with this proposed AD. Is the single engine fleet next? Probably not .

Buyback? Class action lawsuits?

Now, to many operators of these aircraft this seems like a wholesale redesign of the whole fleet of Cessna workhorses. Some have even suggested that Cessna should buy back those aircraft that are not economically logical to modify or continue to operate. Insurance companies will probably refuse to insure such aircraft without proof of modification. Needless to say, the lawyers are looking very carefully at the situation because of the large number of people and aircraft concerned. Many have suggested a class action lawsuit to demand that Cessna pay for these modifications or buy back the aircraft concerned.

Spar straps are nothing new. Some early Beech King Airs were similarly equipped by STC. The problem here is the number of aircraft impacted and the costs associated vs. the current value of the fleet. It will just not be practical to modify a large number of the affected aircraft.

There has been much opposition to this proposed AD from all of the operator groups with little if any response, so far, from Cessna or the FAA. All are requesting that the comment period be extended so that the economic impact can be explored further, among other reasons.

The proposed AD's were designed by Cessna to address what it perceived to be a failure threat. Indeed, the studies performed by Cessna that back up this engineering change, were funded in large part by the FAA. But, the fact is there does not appear to be a significant threat of failure of the wing spars with these aircraft. According to reports, there has only been one accident involving a wing spar that was damaged in the Cessna factory during original manufacture of the aircraft. This was further aggravated by a landing accident that tore the landing gear off the aircraft! Little wonder that the wing failed some 18 years later! So far, this is the only documented failure.

More work for technicians?
Some have suggested that all these regulatory requirements will provide windfall work for technicians well into the future and provide a need to expand the workforce at many facilities. Could be, but the more logical result will be a reduction in the fleet size and a proportional reduction in work because of the maintenance costs involved. We'll just have to wait and see. When you have the time take a look at the SIDs and the AD's and see if you agree with me and others. Send comments to aerolaw@att.net.


Stephen P. Prentice is an attorney whose practice involves FAA-NTSB issues. He has an Airframe and Powerplant certificate and is an ATP rated pilot.

Loading