FAA Wants to Limit Fatigue Damage On Aging Commercial Planes

In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) with a public comment period set to end on July 17, FAA proposes to "require that design approval holders [DAHs, or airplane manufacturers] establish operational limits on transport category airplanes.


While the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) April 18 proposal to mitigate widespread fatigue damage (WFD) in aging transport aircraft through operational limits is intended to make the aviation industry more proactive with WFD problems, some aviation safety experts aren't so sure that will happen. But they give different reasons for their uncertainty.

In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) with a public comment period set to end on July 17, FAA proposes to "require that design approval holders [DAHs, or airplane manufacturers] establish operational limits on transport category airplanes. [DAHs] would also be required to determine if maintenance actions are needed to prevent [WFD] before an airplane reaches its operational limit."

Also, the agency says that "operators of any affected airplane would be required to incorporate the operational limit and any necessary service information into their maintenance programs. Operation of an affected airplane beyond the operational limit would be prohibited, unless an operator has incorporated an extended operational limit and any necessary service information into its maintenance program." The proposal would affect aircraft with maximum takeoff gross weights of 75,000 pounds or more.

Despite their initial reservations, former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Jim Hall and Professor Chuck Eastlake of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University say that the NPRM is a welcome development.

On the one hand, Hall, now a private consultant in Washington, D.C. with Hall and Associates, says that placing the onus of responsibility on the manufacturers and airlines is not the right focus. The Bush administration, he tells Air Safety Week, is particularly averse to regulations and enforcement. We have a safe aviation system, he says, because it's generally recognized that the government has a fairly substantial role to play. But the current administration wants to get results by using too few people and too few resources.

Hall was former President Clinton's NTSB Chairman, initially getting confirmed as a board member in October 1993, about 10 months after the start of Clinton's first term. In May 1994, Hall was appointed as the board's vice chairman, then moved up to chairman roughly two months later. He resigned from the NTSB on Jan. 19, 2001, a few days before the beginning of the Bush presidency.

Moreover, Hall adds that the NPRM "swims against the tide of common sense" by expecting that aircraft designers or operators, with the company bottom line and economic self-interest getting in the way, will do the best job. "None of us does a very good job of policing ourselves."

Then too, all the data for monitoring aircraft safety is supposed to originate with manufacturers, Hall adds. This presents a certain "chilling factor" from the point of view of manufacturers, who may be reluctant to release some information or respond as FAA wants, because of litigation concerns.

In a related development, the Flight Safety Foundation commended the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at its annual European safety seminar in March, for approving provisions intended to prevent safety information from being used in legal proceedings against operational personnel. Before taking effect, however, the provisions would have to be adopted as national laws and regulations by ICAO member states.

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