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Operators Complain of Ongoing RVSM Approval Headaches
For U.S. airplane owners and operators the simple four-letter acronym RVSM (for reduced vertical separation minimums, the process for reducing to 1,000 feet the separation between airplanes flying above 29,000 feet) signals the beginning of an onerous process to get formal permission from the FAA to fly in what has become an ordinary fashion. Operators complain about lengthy approval times for the required RVSM letter of authorization (LOA), FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) inspectors who push RVSM manual approvals to the bottom of their large work piles and a lack of understanding even within the FAA about which entity–the owner or operator–is required to obtain the LOA.
Whenever RVSM comes up on the NBAA Air Mail forum, the subject generates massive responses, most of them complaints. One flight department complained that its FSDO said that a simple registration name change voided its LOA. The FSDO then took 75 days to turn around the new LOA approval. Another company was unable to access RVSM airspace for 45 days due to a name change and an FAA inspector who failed to communicate when he found a problem with the application. (The problem turned out not to be incorrect.) One pilot butted heads with the FSDO that oversees his management company about whether the LOA should be issued to the owner or management company. The FAA inspector in this case mentioned the possibility of violating the operator for hundreds of flights in RVSM airspace without a properly issued LOA, although ultimately the FSDO didn’t write up the operator.
One pilot pointed out that the FAA could make everyone’s lives easier without compromising safety by using a system similar to that of the Cayman Islands, where once a Cayman-registered aircraft is certified and the pilots trained, there is no other approval process. In the U.S., the regulations are clear and virtually unchangeable except via a lengthy process. And the U.S. regulations require that operators obtain an LOA.
To help pilots, owners and operators understand RVSM and efforts to streamline some aspects of the LOA approval process, NBAA recently held a free webinar. The webinar can be downloaded for offline consumption at the NBAA website (see the events listing).
The webinar provided a useful introduction to RVSM history and the current requirements, and it also attempted to answer questions raised by the issues mentioned above and gave participants an opportunity to ask their own questions.
“There have been some growing pains on trying to get the process into place and what the requirements are,” explained David Norton, a partner at law firm Shackelford, Melton & McKinley and a member of the NBAA Domestic Operations Committee. “Generally what the two big issues have been are lack of clarity on who obtains the authorization and the timing and the requirements to get those authorizations,” he said.
According to Norton, NBAA has been working closely with the FAA for the past two years on RVSM issues. “[We] started talking about those technical aspects and that started a good dialogue on trying to fix some of the logistics of getting RVSM in place. [The agency was] able to fix the system and iron out some of the issues with that. The rules are not going to change, but we are working with the FAA on coming up with a more streamlined process and a better definition of who’s supposed to get the authorizations.”
Operational Concern Questions
A big point of confusion for new and even long-time RVSM operators in the U.S. is who must obtain the authorization. The regulations specifically require the operator of the airplane to obtain RVSM authority. But, added Norton, “there’s a lot of confusion on that. Speaking as a professional pilot myself, pilots always like to think that they are the operators of the airplane. They may be the manipulators of the controls, but what we’re talking about is the party that truly has legal operational control of the airplane.”
Operational control is a confusing concept, and NBAA is working on an operational control handbook for Part 91 operators, which will also explain the RVSM LOA requirements. “But all that being said,” he added, “the big question is, who’s the operator of the airplane? Who’s the right person to get that RVSM authorization?”
For Part 91 operators, either the registered owner or “somebody who is operating the airplane under a lease or use agreement” must obtain the LOA. This is simple for a traditional flight department, where one company owns and operates the aircraft, hires pilots and runs the airplane. That company would have to receive the RVSM authorization.
In a situation where the airplane is held by an ownership trust, Norton explained, “then the registered owner of the aircraft is now the owner trustee–maybe Wells Fargo, Bank of Utah. There are a number of trust companies, but they’re not the operator. There’s going to be a separate agreement where they’ve transferred operational control to some operator.” This would be the company that is flying the airplane, and this company would obtain the LOA.
An airplane that is placed with a management company is still operated by the owner of the airplane, even if the management company provides the pilots, maintenance, insurance, fuel and so on. As Norton said, “The recipient of the authorization is not the management company. It should still be issued under the regulations in the name of the operator.”
Things get a little more confusing if there is more than one operator. Consider, for example, an airplane that is placed with a management company that also uses the airplane for Part 135 charter. “Under the regulations, each operator is supposed to get its own authorization,” he said. That means the owner will have an LOA and the Part 135 company will have a separate LOA under its operations specifications. There could be a situation with multiple Part 91 operators, in sharing or leasing situations. “Technically, if you’ve got multiple Part 91 operators,” he added, “then each operator is supposed to get its own authorization to conduct those RVSM flights.”
Are LOAs Necessary?
FAA Flight Standards subject matter expert Madison Walton addressed the question of whether LOAs are necessary, which always comes up in any discussion of RVSM. “The LOA provides the FAA with a systematic approach to ensure that airplanes are operated and maintained within the prescribed safety limits of RVSM airspace. It’s critical to the continued safety of RVSM operations that the altimetry system error and the height-keeping performance continue to meet RVSM requirements. RVSM LOAs are in accordance with the performance-based operation paradigm. The requirements are published, and when the operators and the airplane are compliant, you get your LOA. Also, the use of LOAs based on globally accepted standards provides a safe RVSM operation worldwide.” There are 20,665 LOAs for N-registered airplanes in the FAA database, he noted.
Of course there are plenty of flight systems that depend on proper pilot training, capability and operation that don’t merit an LOA. For example, when the ILS was first implemented in the early 1940s, pilots needed special training to use the new system. It’s not likely, however, that the requirement for RVSM LOAs will ever change, unless the underlying regulation is altered someday.
The FAA’s Trent Bigler brought up another issue on the NBAA webinar, that pilots have been filing flight plans indicating that their aircraft has RVSM equipment using the equipment suffix but at the same time noting in the remarks section “non-RVSM.” According to Bigler, “There is an increased focus recently to eliminate this action. Air traffic organizations are reporting the incidents to us at Flight Standards and we are taking appropriate action to ensure the safety of the airspace.”
Bigler advises pilots to consult the Aeronautical Information Manual to make sure correct terminology is used for flight plans in RVSM airspace. He also directs them to the recently released Information for Operators document (InFO 12001), which covers “Flight Planning Responsibilities When Conducting RVSM Operations.” Added Bigler, “Urge everyone to read it, heed it and pass it along to other aviation professionals. If you use that information, it will reduce the risk in the national airspace.”
An important part of the LOA process is the operator’s approved maintenance program, which is required as part of the LOA and also the only part of the LOA that must be FAA-approved (as opposed to accepted).
According to Charles Fellows of the FAA Flight Standards Aircraft Maintenance Division, safe implementation of the 1,000-foot minimum separation standard depends on proper maintenance of the RVSM equipment installed on the airplane. “The fundamental purpose of the RVSM maintenance program is to control altimetry system error,” he said. “The risk analysis and safety modeling employed in the RVSM program require that we maintain aircraft altimetry system error at less than plus or minus 245 feet.”
Fellows recommends that operators preparing RVSM LOA applications consult the primary advisory circular covering RVSM–AC 91-85–and the FAA’s guidance to inspectors found in FAA Order 8900.1, Volume 4, Chapter 10, Section 1 paragraphs 4-135, D1 through D10. “There are 15 elements listed, which the inspector examines to see if your program meets requirements,” he explained. “We address a standard of quality, or depth or the rigor that we expect to see in the program that the inspector needs to verify as listed.” The Order also discusses whether a procedure or a policy statement should address a particular requirement.
Fellows clarified the difference between a procedure and a policy statement. “While a policy statement may describe the company’s official position,” he said, “policy statements don’t include steps to complete the action. I’ll assure you that placing a bold heading above a policy statement that says ‘procedure’ doesn’t make it a procedure statement. Procedures should be able to be followed by any qualified person and reliably repeated and successfully completed. Procedures supply relevant detail such as who, what, where, when, why and how.”
Fellows also warns operators not to put unnecessary elements into the RVSM maintenance program. “If you include more in your RVSM maintenance program than you’re required to and then later are found not to be following those procedures in your program, you could be in trouble simply because you had them in your program and it was approved.”
In answer to a question about submitting RVSM applications well before delivery of the airplane, the FAA’s Walton said the agency is aware this is an issue “and we’ll be addressing it in the future.” He acknowledged that policies at different FSDOs vary “based on the staffing of the offices. Some will work it before delivery of the aircraft, some don’t have adequate resources, but we do have that as one of the concerns of the operator and we’re looking for methodology to address it.”
The FAA is changing its WebOps system to allow issuance of RVSM LOAs for an airplane that is operating under both Part 91 and 135. “That’s being worked on right now,” said Fellows.
One questioner complained that the wait time for an LOA is more than 12 weeks and that he has been receiving from FAA inspectors “noncommittal responses” to his queries about the delay. “Allowances probably need to be made for an individual office’s workloads,” said Walton, “and if an application extends out a long period of time, there is typically some reason for it or some difficulty that needs to be resolved. So good communication is helpful there. But definitely the target that we aim for is 60 days.”
One of the topics covered at a recent meeting of NBAA and FAA officials was the problems that operators encounter when making a simple name change on a registration document and how this forces some operators to fly in non-RVSM airspace at greatly increased fuel burns while waiting sometimes months for re-approval of their LOAs. “We’re going to try and work with the FAA to identify those easy scenarios,” said Norton. He has one client that is moving an airplane from one company to an affiliate, “and this triggers the requirement for a new LOA. The FAA acknowledges that if we can pick out those cases where there’s low-hanging fruit, we may be able to come up with a streamlined process.”
Norton answered another key question that keeps coming up: whether a management company can hold an LOA for all of the operators of the airplanes that it is managing. “If you’re in a Part 91 operation, the manager is never technically the operator of the airplane,” he noted. “The LOA should be issued in the name of the operator.”
The FAA and NBAA personnel who put on the webinar promised to follow up on questions that there was no time to answer and those that needed more research.
The Right Way To Get that RVSM LOA
NBAA Domestic Operations Committee chairman Lucille Fisher outlined the RVSM LOA application process and offered advice on how to make it run more smoothly.
• Establish a relationship with the FSDO inspectors. “This RVSM process could be one of the only times that you actually have a relationship with your FSDO.”
• “For those of you who have not had a great deal of interaction with the FSDO, don’t just show up there without an appointment.”
• Submit the completed application 60 days before the time when the RVSM certification is needed.
• “Make sure you have airworthiness documents and all the things listed [in the program requirements].”
• Complete the FAA job aid. “It helps you make certain that all the components that are required are indeed contained in this application. More important, it helps your inspector. On the website the job aid is available, you can fill it out, and there’s a column to put where you complied with the different pieces that are required.”
• “You’re the ones who are going to be operating this airplane in that airspace, and it has to come down to you taking ownership of the process. You can subcontract all you want but ultimately you have the responsibility.”
• “Make sure your information is accurate.”