Words Matter

Humans have a difficult time communicating in the best of circumstances; the communication between government and industry is even more problematic. The bottom line is that the government communicates with its citizens through laws and regulations; citizens show compliance with those mandates through records. Unfortunately, many of the regulations that govern the communication between aviation companies and the Federal Aviation Administration were not written with the care needed to ensure clarity. The propensity of the legislators to dictate the regulations a government agency should enact compounds the problem.

Public aircraft

Let’s look at an example of how this works. “Public aircraft” is a common phrase that actually means an aircraft is being used for a governmental purpose and therefore is not subject to oversight by the FAA. It is not the aircraft that is public, but the particular flight. The public flight exception has existed for a long time; however, due to accidents associated with university sports teams, travel clubs, and similar entities that used to be able to operate under the exception, Congress narrowed the ability to fly outside parts 43, 91, 121, 125, and 135. The new restrictions have created more confusion and some government agencies don’t even want to take the responsibility for oversight of the flights that do happen to fall into the exception.

The irony of the situation is that the FAA is left in the unenviable position of explaining it doesn’t have jurisdiction over some flights but still must oversee the “continued airworthiness” of the aircraft. Thus, we use the phrase public aircraft to cover the design, operations, and maintenance of a fixed wing or rotorcraft that will be used in regular operations as well as public flights. The latter can require equipment or operations that would never be approved by or acceptable to the FAA, yet somehow the agency and the industry have to work the issues or the aircraft could be grounded for days changing from one configuration to another.

The way through the maze will depend upon the communication ability of the pilot, mechanic, particular government agency asking for the flight, and the FAA. If we start the conversation with the term public aircraft, the nuances will be lost. If we use the term public flight or public operation, we can narrow the issues associated with each party. Of course, since we are human, there will be those who vehemently disagree with me, but that is OK, at least we can start to resolve the problem! AMT


Marshall Filler performs extensive consulting work for clients in the safety regulatory area, advising air carriers, repair stations, manufacturers, distributors, and individual airmen on a variety of issues pertaining to certification, maintenance, and flight operations. He has also represented certificate holders in accident investigations conducted by the NTSB. Filler serves as managing director & general counsel of ARSA. For more information visit www.arsa.org.