Inefficient certification processes are delaying hundreds of new applications for aircraft operations and repair stations, says Jeffrey Guzzetti, assistant inspector general for aviation audits for the Department of Transportation.

The agency’s ability to process new applications was just one of several areas of its oversight that came under scrutiny in a House aviation subcommittee hearing Oct. 30, with other concerns involving the agency’s ability to keep up with certification of NextGen projects, its use of the delegation system and the agency’s lack of consistency in certification and regulation.

Guzzetti, who appeared before the committee, notes that 1,029 new applications are pending for air operator and repair station certificates across the country. Of those, 138 have been delayed for more than three years and one has waited since August 2006.

Guzzetti cites numerous reasons for the delays, including FAA’s certification process itself. FAA does not have an effective approach to prioritize certifications, he says, adding it uses a first-come, first-served approach. “As a result, many applicants may be significantly delayed if more complex certifications are ahead of them,” he says. A large Part 135 applicant that requires extensive inspector time and effort could delay all new certifications, he says. FAA does have flexibility to jump ahead to less complex approvals, but rarely uses this flexibility. FAA is working on guidance to streamline its approach.

FAA also lacks a standardized process for new certifications, and new certification work has been disrupted several times over the past three years as the agency has tried to manage workflow involving existing certificate holders, Guzzetti notes.

He also expresses concern about FAA’s ability to keep up with what will be a significant increase in workload as more NextGen technologies and unmanned aircraft come online. “FAA’s ability to certify complex systems and new technologies is a critical factor in the successful implementation of NextGen and provide benefits to airspace users,” he says. This is particularly true for the success of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) program, given the 2020 deadline for operators to install ADS-B Out technology.

FAA has certified some rule-compliant avionics and more are anticipated over the next couple of years. But in addition to certifying the equipment, FAA also must certify the procedures, further adding to the agency’s workload, he says.

Guzzetti notes FAA’s delegation system, the organization designation authorization (ODA), can help FAA to manage its resources. But he cautions that as ODA grows, “it remains critical that adequate oversight controls are in place to ensure that qualified individuals are properly certifying critical aircraft components.”

At the direction of Congress, FAA has been taking steps to improve and streamline its certification process. This includes the development of consensus recommendations with industry representatives on reforming the aircraft certification process. Dorenda Baker, FAA director of the Aircraft Certification service, told the aviation subcommittee that the agency is regularly meeting with industry on the joint recommendations, which include more thoroughly using its delegation authority. In addition, FAA has established an Aviation Rulemaking committee to update Part 21 standards for certification of aircraft products and parts.

FAA is also taking a new look at its sequencing of certification projects, Baker says. Industry groups frequently point to the sequencing system as one of the key reasons projects are delayed. The agency has solicited input on how better to implement such a system to prioritize projects and hopes to transition to a new process next year, she says.

She also notes that FAA is working toward increasing the efficiency of the ODA process and improving the use of ODA authority, including providing more flexibility for the ODA. “Greater flexibility translates into the ODA having more control over its projects timelines,” she said.

Pete Bunce, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, stressed the importance of the agency continuing to improve the ODA program, saying leveraging resources is critical. If FAA permits increased use of delegation, then it frees up resources to enable the agency to focus on newer companies. The current uncertainties in the certification process serve as a disincentive for new companies to make investments, he says, because they cannot guarantee when products will get to market to begin generating revenues.

Bunce acknowledges commitments at the higher levels of the agency, but says, “You can’t just put out edicts from headquarters.” The agency needs more systemic changes, with new job descriptions and culture change, he says.

Baker acknowledges the need for culture change and regulatory and oversight changes. She cited efforts in this area as the agency tries to become more consistent in its regulatory oversight. The agency has been working to implement recommendations from the Consistency of Regulatory Interpretation Aviation Rulemaking committee. The ARC was formed at the request of Congress to develop recommendations to help standardize FAA’s approach to regulation.

To achieve the goal of more consistent regulation, Baker notes “long-term planning and culture change would be essential.” The agency is reviewing workforce training, along with working to better catalog and integrate guidance, she says.

Thomas Hendricks, president and CEO of the National Air Transportation Association, acknowledged that implementing changes is no easy task given the eight FAA regions, 10 aircraft certification offices and 80 flight standards district offices that must be balanced.

But regardless, FAA must be consistent, he says. “When FAA grants approval for a certificate or process to one aircraft operator or maintenance facility without giving the same approval to similar businesses in another area of the country, it directly affects the competitiveness of companies,” he says. He noted an example of a charter operator that wanted to move an aircraft from one FAA region to another. The operator was deemed compliant in the first region, but had to spend $25,000 and wait five weeks to receive approval from the next region. This cost the operator more than $200,000 in lost revenue.