Operational Control

March 13, 2008
How maintenance fits in.

I read today that the FAA has extended the timeline in which it will be inspecting all charter operations specifications section A008 for compliance with operational control requirements. Although this is a good thing, some have already suffered consequences of not being able to demonstrate operational control to the FAA’s satisfaction.

Certificate franchising
The most serious consequence is what the FAA refers to as “certificate franchising.” FAA Order 8900.16 defines this by saying that the “Certificate holder is allowing non-certificated entities to conduct operations as if they held a certificate.” This results in the revocation of the air carrier’s certificate.

Operational control
Demonstrating operational control is pretty straight forward. I highly recommend reading FAA Orders 8900.4 - Guidance for Operations Specifications A002 and A008: Operational Control, and 8900.16 Special Emphasis Inspection: Operational Control. FAA orders are written to the safety inspector to provide guidance on how to enforce policy. Order 8900.16 spells out the enforcement actions to be taken dependent upon the infraction.

Although I believe that most charter operators have a handle on operational control, I also know that being asked to demonstrate it may be a challenge. Who pays the pilots? Who owns the aircraft? Who knows the maintenance status of the aircraft? When is the next maintenance event? Is it scheduled? Are there any deferred MEL items? Who carries the insurance? Are there restrictions associated with the MEL? Are the mechanics that work on the aircraft currently enrolled in a random pooling for drug testing under an FAA-approved drug testing program? The list goes on and on. Order 8900.4 provides a clear description of what the FAA is looking for.

To have operational control means that you have control of the operation. (Duh.) Actually, FAR Part 1 provides the following definition:

Operational control, with respect to a flight, means the exercise of authority over initiating, conducting, or terminating a flight.

What all does the “operation” really include? Putting an aircraft into operation has long been thought to be synonymous with placing an aircraft into service. Often there have been discussions about the terms “return to service” and “approval for return to service” as they pertain to maintenance performed. Maintenance personnel, for example, can only approve for return to service. The actual return to service activity is to taxi the aircraft to the runway, push the throttles forward, and lift off from the runway. This is why we count flight time from lift-off to touchdown. The term operation expands beyond “in-service.” We need to think of the operation beginning with the conception of the flight and ending with the completion of the flight. In such case, we include all planning activities as well as the flight of the aircraft.

The regulations have been around forever (figuratively speaking) and are intended to assure the safety of aircraft operation. The requirement for having operational control is really nothing new. What the current operational control issue does for our industry is delineate the boundary around the flight of an aircraft that defines when operational control begins and ends.

With my passion being in maintenance and maintenance planning, I think that the FAA has not put enough emphasis on assuring the airworthiness of the aircraft itself as a function of operational control which, of course, begins with maintenance tracking and planning. The primary focus has been to address the inappropriate use of other people’s airplanes for charter operations.

Scheduled maintenance
Long before the aircraft leaves the ground, there is a level of maintenance that we are responsible for. By regulation that maintenance is required whether the aircraft operates under Part 135 or Part 91. The scheduled maintenance requirements are nearly identical for large and multi-turbine powered aircraft. Almost every maintenance item defined by the manufacturer to be a requirement on an aircraft is scheduled to be accomplished at some recurring frequency. This is called scheduled maintenance.

When an aircraft flies, it accumulates time in hours and minutes, and when it lands, it adds additional landings or cycles; as the days go by, we move closer and closer to items scheduled on a calendar basis. The maintenance status of the aircraft is dynamic. In order to have a clear understanding of the maintenance status of the aircraft (required by 91.417 and 135.439, respectively), the pilot must know when all of the required maintenance items were last accomplished and more importantly, when they are next due. It’s as simple as knowing without a doubt that you will be able to complete the planned trip without overflying any required scheduled maintenance item.

The term scheduled maintenance also includes airworthiness directives. Whether they are recurring or not, airworthiness directives must be accomplished as outlined in the airworthiness directive itself, if it’s applicable to the aircraft or any of the aircraft components. While a pilot or entity is planning for the operation of an aircraft, whether it is for hire or just for fun, the aircraft must be airworthy. In order to be airworthy, the aircraft, as configured, must be in compliance with all federal regulations, have all scheduled maintenance items accomplished, and be properly configured for the intended flight.

Airworthiness directives
The FAA recently announced that it intends to come down on the operational control of aircraft operated under Part 91. This made me laugh. Part 135 operators are specifically bound to “operational control” by regulation, which under Part 135, includes several Part 135 specific requirements that will not be required under Part 91.

§ 135.77 Responsibility for operational control.

Each certificate holder is responsible for operational control and shall list, in the manual required by §135.21, the name and title of each person authorized by it to exercise operational control.

Under Part 91 “operational control” has always been delegated to the owner/operator.

§ 91.3 Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.

(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.

In addition to being the final authority as to the Part 91 operation of that aircraft, the owner or operator is also responsible for maintaining the airworthiness of an aircraft.

§ 91.403 General

(a) The owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition, including compliance with Part 39 of this chapter.
FAA Order 8900.4 includes the following guidance related to the maintenance requirements for an aircraft and operational control.
8900.4 Appendix A, Section 1269, Paragraph C.

(2) Maintaining operational control requires the Part 135 operator to, among other things:

(h) Ensure that an aircraft is airworthy and is in compliance with the conditions and limitations specified by the FAA-approved inspection/maintenance program for the certificate holder before it is allowed to depart on a Part 135 flight.

(3) … Thus, each Part 135 operator must have an organization and system in place — including all the necessary tools such as recordkeeping and management surveillance/oversight — that is sufficient to ensure that all functions have been accomplished before a flight or a series of flights is authorized to depart …

Maintenance tracking
In order to have a handle on the scheduled maintenance requirements for an aircraft, the aircraft owner or operator under Part 91 or Part 135 should take advantage of a service for maintenance compliance tracking.

There are a few maintenance tracking services available but, as you might guess, I am a bit biased to the Avtrak GlobalNet system. Regardless of your choice, an adequate system will, in real time, keep the owner or operator up to speed as maintenance requirements change for their aircraft, regardless of the inspection and maintenance program. It will be simple to use and will provide a good set of tools for the planning of scheduled maintenance. If you are not currently using a maintenance tracking service provider, consider the following:

  1. Do you know if all of your aircraft’s maintenance requirements have been met?
  2. Are you certain that only the necessary maintenance is being accomplished?
  3. Do you know what the next inspection requirement due on your aircraft is and about when it will be due?
  4. Have you accomplished all mandatory service information recommended by the aircraft manufacturer?
  5. Are all applicable Airworthiness Directives properly recorded in the maintenance records?
  6. Are you including all of the “instructions for continued airworthiness” that are required by the modifications and alterations on your aircraft?
  7. Are the life-limited parts in your engines going to make it to the next major engine event?

These are just a few of the things that need to be considered when trying to determine the airworthiness status of your aircraft.

I’m not sure if the FAA will really attempt to enforce operational control on Part 91 owners and operators, but I’m curious to hear what the evaluation terms and process will be if they do. It has always been a difficult challenge for the FAA to oversee operations under Part 91. A

Joe Hertzler is the CEO and co-founder of Avtrak Inc., provider of the industry’s first Internet-based and compliance-focused maintenance tracking service — Avtrak GlobalNet. Avtrak has earned a solid reputation for having the most comprehensive and easy-to-use compliance management system and service in the industry. Avtrak’s GlobalNet technology is the engine behind Gulfstream CMP.net and Sikorsky HelotracII. GlobalNet is the system of choice for many operators of more than 140 models including Bombardier, Hawker/Beechcraft, and Dassault Falcon aircraft.