On January 24, 2014, the FAA issued a new National Policy on operations in Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (“RVSM”) airspace. (FAA Notice N8900.250 and Revised FAA Order 8900.1.) One significant topic addressed is that, for aircraft with multiple operators (e.g., multiple lessees of a single aircraft), each one operating in RVSM airspace must possess its own, distinct letter of authorization (“LOA”) issued by the FAA for such operations. The policy further provides for an expedited process to obtain additional LOAs after a single LOA has been issued, so long as the operators seeking additional LOAs conduct operations bearing similarity to the operations for which the existing LOA has already been issued.
Introduction to RVSM Operations
Airspace between 29,000 feet and 41,000 feet, inclusive, is classified as RVSM airspace. Because the accuracy of altimeters tends to decrease as altitude increases, and because air-traffic controllers may direct operations of multiple aircraft into a volume of RVSM airspace, so long as a minimum of 1,000 feet of vertical separation between aircraft is maintained, the FAA has determined that additional supervision and authorization of aircraft that operate in RVSM airspace is required. The FAA feels the need to ensure that altitude-measuring equipment of these aircraft is sufficiently accurate and reliable to ensure that 1,000 vertical feet, assigned is a safe cushion of separation to avoid mid-air collisions.
For many aircraft (jets, in particular) operations in RVSM airspace are a practical necessity because fuel consumption at those altitudes is much more efficient.
New FAA Rule: Three Elements to Prove; Three Levels of Scrutiny
The FAA’s January 24, 2014, national policy identifies three elements that an operator must demonstrate before the FAA will issue an RVSM LOA:
- Eligibility of the aircraft. In this element, the FAA looks to whether the aircraft itself complies with RVSM requirements, including as to the equipment installed.
- Qualification of the aircraft maintenance program. In this element, the FAA reviews the maintenance practices to ensure that they meet the criteria to keep the aircraft in continuing compliance with RVSM requirements.
- Adequate operating policies and procedures for the pilots (and, if applicable, dispatchers). In this element, the FAA seeks to verify that the crew will be capable of meeting all RVSM requirements, including knowledge of the equipment and procedures, and how to detect and respond to malfunctioning equipment.
In addition to setting forth the three elements critical for RVSM qualification, as described above, the FAA national policy includes a decision matrix for routing each RVSM LOA application into one of three bureaucratic tracks (referred to as “authorization groups”), each involving a different level of scrutiny of the application. The tracking concept embodies the philosophy that, if a prior RVSM LOA was already granted based on an application where one or more of the elements of RVSM eligibility matches the current application, the FAA may rely on the prior approval in order to expedite review of the matching element/s on the new application. Further, the policy encourages each FSDO to respect and abide by the conclusions reached by other FSDOs as to particular elements, so long as no specific information raises questions or concerns to suggest that reliance is not appropriate. The three “groups” set out in the national policy, in order of increasing scrutiny, are as follows:
- Administrative only change. This track involves the lowest level of scrutiny, and applies only where both the identity of the operator, and all of the RVSM elements are the same as in a previously granted LOA. Examples of group-one applications include (a) an operator changing its primary business address; and (b) change in N-number of an aircraft for which an LOA has already been granted to the applying operator.
- Application based on one or more already approved elements. This track involves applications where at least one RVSM element is identical to that same element on an already-granted application. An example of a group-two change would be when one operator already has an RVSM LOA for an aircraft, and a new operator (e.g., an additional lessee of the aircraft who, during flights under the lease, will assume operational control) seeks an LOA, and whose operations will share elements in common with the previously authorized operator, such as if the new lessee keeps the aircraft under the same maintenance program.
- Application not based on prior approval. Group three, which could be referred to as a de novo application, or a “from scratch” application, is not bootstrapped by any prior approvals and is not expedited by the FAA. Group three involves a full review of each element.
The new FAA national policy on RVSM applications brings much-needed clarity to a relatively new and evolving regulatory area. In particular, the instruction to FSDOs to expedite applications that involve minor changes can be expected to prevent unnecessary work on all sides through the avoidance of redundant reviews of already approved RVSM elements.
The information in this article is general in nature and operators are encouraged to seek experienced advise in all their aircraft operations.
February 20, 2014
Jonathan Levy, Esq.
Advocate Consulting Legal Group, PLLC is a law firm whose practice is limited to serving the needs of aircraft owners and operators relating to issues of income tax, sales tax, federal aviation regulations, and other related organizational and operational issues.