Maintenance, repair and overhaul industry officials say FAA employees and managers are in some cases imposing ad hoc rules on MRO companies by improperly using the FAA’s internal on-line flight standards information management system (FSIMS), an electronic documentation system the agency adopted to replace the legacy “inspector’s handbook.”

In particular the issues surround Order 8900.1 in FSIMS, which provides the guidelines that inspectors use to oversee and certify airlines and maintenance organizations, including work instructions for maintenance.

The internal system however has become a place where FAA employees can make defacto standards outside of the FAA’s processes for rulemaking and guidance.

“It’s a fundamental flaw in the FAA’s regulatory process,” said Jason Dickstein, an aviation attorney and representative of the Aviation Suppliers Association, at Aviation Week’s MRO Americas conference in Phoenix on April 9. “There are no checks and balances for that.”

Legally, Order 8900.1 provides instructions for FAA employees to use internally, but system is not supposed be used to introduce new standards, explains Dickstein.

“The problem is that new standards get shunted into the orders,” he says.

Unlike new rules or Advisory Circulars, Orders, because they are meant to be internal documents, do not require a review by the FAA’s general counsel’s office for compliance with existing rules and guidance. Dickstein says he has talked to FAA employees and managers who have admitted using Order 8900.1 to implement changes that they knew would not pass the review process in the legal department.

“They’re circumventing the system,” he says.

While “guidance” implies some measure of leeway on the part of the inspectors, airlines say the reality is quite different.

“Order 8900 has become our alternate rule book,” says a maintenance official with Virgin America. “And it’s really interesting how the 8900, which we’re being held to, just changes miraculously.” He says the Order is followed as law by the inspectors. “If anyone thinks that it doesn’t represent the law in the field, they’re not in the field. I don’t know any inspector who looks at 8900 as guidance material.” 

Asked during the panel what the FAA was doing to slow down the changes to help airlines “catch their breath,” the FAA’s director of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service, John Duncan, said he was working to “reset” the culture within the agency that leads inspectors to make such changes. He notes that Order 8900 was created to “fill in the gaps” where regulations are vague or unclear, but that it represents “one way” to meet a requirement, not the only way.

“We should not be using 8900 as a regulatory document or as a way to avoid putting out an advisory circular,” he says, adding that maintenance organizations should confront their inspectors on the issues, and also alert higher managers in the FAA.