For decades, many mechanics secretly suspected that most bureaucrats are cerebrally short-changed and soft around the edges. These suspicions are strengthened by daily affirmations of fact when they sit down and ponder the darker meanings of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR).
Suspicions quickly turn into belief when, out of frustration, a mechanic calls the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) inspector to find out just what the heck the rule is supposed to mean.
He gets an answer. Not quite sure of the validity of this first answer, our suspicious mechanic administers a time-honored litmus test, and makes a call to another FSDO. From what mechanics tell me, one out of four times that a mechanic calls for a second opinion, he will get yet a different interpretation of the rule.
Interpreting the rules
Our mechanic is not surprised if this second answer is 90 to 180 degrees off from the first interpretation of the rule because most mechanics know that interpreting the legal language in a rule is an art form and not a science. In many ways, reading a rule is like reading the ancient Mayan petroglyphs on a temple wall. You never are quite sure what the author truly wanted because most of our rules go back to the 1940s and 1950s — the guys who wrote them are no longer around. So, depending on what side of the fence you live on, mechanics and FAA inspectors rule interpretations float between a positive and negative answer. Like so many times before, our intrepid mechanic picks the “official” answer he likes the best and presses on. And this is how “Interpret the FAR” game has been played for the past 30 years.
In defense of my FSDO inspectors, be advised that they do not write the rules. These folks are not bureaucrats, they are inspectors. However, they still have the less than enviable task of explaining, enforcing, and defending the FAR — which is all the more difficult, because they must interpret the rule from the same Code of Federal Regulations that our mechanic is quoting from. All in all, this word game the FAA inspectors are forced to play has the same odds of daily success that General Custer had at Little Big Horn, so be kind to them.
Blame the bureaucrats
To delegate blame and set the matter straight, it is we bureaucrats in Washington who are the ones who write the rules and generate policy that goes with them. However, in defense of my fellow bureaucrats, it isn’t easy to write a rule because there are so many interest groups and individuals beating on your door. It isn’t easy to write policy that goes along with the rule that has to explain the unexplainable in accordance with the Government Style manual. Also, please remember that all of our rule and policy work is reviewed, and re-written by members of the legal profession. I rest my case.
Written in plain language
But, delegating blame not withstanding, the “Interpret the FAR” game is on its way out. The beginning of the end of this nationwide industry pastime began with a memorandum from the White House, dated June 1, 1998 — the memorandum that requires all government agencies to use plain language in all proposed and final rulemaking by Jan. 1, 1999. In December of 1999, the FAA issued the Administrator’s broadcast message that explained the FAA’s Plain Language effort. It was quickly followed by an FAA Aircraft Maintenance Focus Group in February of this year to discuss plain language issues in the maintenance community.
The Maintenance Focus Group members consisted of aircraft mechanics, airline engineers, maintenance school instructors, and holders of Inspection Authorizations (IA). There was also a representative from the Air Transport Association and National Air Transport Association. The meeting was held here in Washington, and the group members were pleased to note that no FAA representatives were to participate in the group, so they knew that they would be spared the obligatory defense of the status quo by the establishment.
Focus group in action
The focus group members were told up front that their discussions were going to be videotaped for review by the FAA. While it sounds like Big Brother is watching, I kind of like the idea of videotape, because a transcript of a meeting is two-dimensional. Words on paper sometimes lack the passion of the moment, while videotape leaves nothing to the imagination. I, and a few other FAA bureaucrats, witnessed the focus group in action from an adjoining room in which the videotape live feed was piped to TV monitor.
The meeting started predictably enough, each focus gGroup member feeling out the expertise and background of the other guy. Once they got comfortable with one another, they got down to business. As I watched them get into it, I nervously fingered my well-worn copy of “Christy’s 100,000 useless words and phrases.” As I sat there in the gloom, I recalled my mentor, Leo Weston’s, first bit of advice when I came to Washington to fill the position of apprentice bureaucrat, “O’Brien, if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask a mechanic the question.”
Within 10 minutes after the start of the meeting, it was no big surprise that the group members zeroed in on Airworthiness Directives (ADs) as the major communication problem between the maintenance industry and the government. They were relentless in their attack on the AD problem, just like a horde of fire ants at a nudist picnic.
“ADs are difficult to understand!” voiced the IA.
“Compliance instructions are not clear,” said the engineer.
“Too much unnecessary information,” the Part 147 instructor complained.
The facilitator, a woman in her early 30s, tried to maintain order, then quickly gave up, and wisely just went along with the flow.
For those of you not familiar with Airworthiness Directives or ADs as they are universally known, I will digress for a moment and explain. An AD is a mandatory inspection or maintenance requirement that the owner or operator is required to comply with. If the AD is not complied with, the aircraft is not considered airworthy. ADs are the aviation equivalent of death and taxes — you simply cannot avoid them.
Sorting the code
Title 14, Part 39 of the Code of Federal Regulations is where you find ADs, but if you count the number of regulations printed in Part 39 there are only 4 sections or rules. However, four rules are just a “Hello, how are you” introduction to Part 39. Those four rules at the beginning of Part 39 have thousands of brother and sister rules because each AD is in fact, a separate Part 39 rule with its own amendment number. The government printing office does not publish all of the ADs in the Code of Federal Regulations because it would wipe out a few thousand acres of trees a year to make the paper to print all of them on. Furthermore, the Code would never be current because the FAA issues more ADs than any other rule. For example, in 1999, Part 39 grew by 538 Airworthiness Directives — that’s more than one per day for everyday in 1999.
Although I cannot confirm this statement, I do not think there are “N” numbered aircraft out there in standard category that are AD-free. If there is a clean airplane out there, please give me a call at (202) 267-3796 and I will see if I can do something about this obvious oversight.
Why are there so many Airworthiness Directives? ADs cover the entire aircraft in four broad areas such as, Airframes, Powerplants, and Propellers that cover hundreds of different makes and models of aircraft. Let us not forget to mention the fourth area: Appliances, an area that covers just about anything hung on an aircraft.
Being 70 years older than Santa Claus, I can still remember back to 1969 when it was a matter of pride that a manufacturer could declare that he did not have an AD against his product, but that was long ago and far away and they tell me that you can’t go back.
Types of ADs
Getting back on track. There are three kinds of ADs that are issued:
• Emergency AD
• Immediate Adopted Rule
• Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) AD
The Emergency AD is a rule without the normal Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) process and publication and request for comments in the Federal Register. The FAA has the authority to issue emergency ADs and demand compliance to ensure safety without messing around waiting for your comments. An emergency AD usually begins with these words “before further flight.” Use of these words in the AD literally ground the aircraft until the AD is complied with.
The second kind of AD is called the Immediate Adopted Rule. This AD is also allowed to be published without the normal NPRM process, again, for safety reasons. However the Immediate Adopted Rule AD usually begins with the words, “Within the next 10 hours/landings/cycles, etc. perform the following.” In other words, the Immediate Adopted Rule does not ground the aircraft, but it allows the owner-operator some operational wiggle room before the AD must be complied with.
The third and final form of AD, and the most popular, is the normal NPRM AD. It takes an NPRM AD about a year to go though the NPRM process. This is about three years faster than normal rule making for the other Parts in Title 14. Because all Title 14 rules have the force of law, and all ADs must survive legal review by FAA general council, the good news is that ADs are always at the top of the priority list and get pushed along faster than other rules that are in the NPRM process.
The AD lady
Getting back to the room where I was watching the focus group on the monitor, I was sitting next to Linda Walker, who long ago I nicknamed the “AD Lady.” This is because all ADs that are published go through her hands and she has power mere mortals can only imagine. Anyway, off and on during the focus group members’ discussions, I could not help but overhear Linda mumble to herself. She would say words like “He’s right,” or “I tried to change that two years ago,” and then she uttered something about pencil pushers that I did not quite catch.
I can tell you this, Linda is a pretty sharp lady and knows her business and her customers so I was not surprised that at the start of the meeting she gave the facilitator a draft copy of a plain language AD for the group to review if the subject came up. I was not surprised that after the focus group members reviewed Linda’s Draft Plain Language AD, the IA summed it up by saying, “I’ll take a dozen of these rules.”
New AD format
So the fix is in. What is the new Plain Language AD going to look like? Well, there are two AD formats being tried out: Simple and Complex. The Simple AD format is for simple, easy to fix problems or inspections. The Complex AD format is used to fix complex problems. Wow, this plain language stuff is working already. In both formats, the language will use active voice, short sentences, “you” and other pronouns, and common everyday words, except for necessary technical terms. Both formats will also use “Question and Answer” writing style. The new format for ADs will begin in October of this year and it will take about a year before you see all ADs being issued in the new format.
We would like to have your opinion on our efforts to clean up the communications between us. For emergency and immediate adopted rule, voice your opinion to the local FSDO whether or not plain language initiative is working. The local inspectors will pass it on to us bureaucrats in Washington where a phalanx of editors will examine your every word.
For the NPRM ADs published in the Federal Register, the new “Comments Invited” section will tell you where you can send your comments directly to the people who wrote the AD.
If you want to know more about the FAA’s Plain Language effort, look up the FAA’s web page at www.faa.gov or contact email@example.com.
Let us know if the game is truly over.