FAA Exemptions, Guidance Target Maintaining Compliance During Pandemic

Credit: Linda Blachly

WASHINGTON—The FAA has made several changes and is preparing more guidance documents and policy statements to help the industry navigate some short-term roadblocks presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Air carriers have been granted grace periods for meeting some recurrent and upgrade training and qualification requirements. The temporary exemptions, which take into account U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for minimizing risk of spreading COVID-19, cover certain pilot check rides, cabin-crew proficiency demonstrations, and training for dispatchers and ground personnel. Operators must file specific requests with the FAA that outline their specific plans.

“Certain training environments, such as crowded classrooms, may pose an unnecessary risk of exposure to crewmembers and aircraft dispatchers who are among the population that has identified as high risk,” the FAA told Airlines For America in a Mar. 26 decision discussing some of the exemptions for Part 121 operators. “This co-location of critical personnel increases the likelihood that significant portions of the certificate holder’s qualified personnel could be exposed to COVID-19, possibly necessitating at a minimum a period of quarantine resulting in fewer personnel to rely upon in maintaining operations. It is reasonable to assume that the qualifications of crewmembers and aircraft dispatchers may lapse unnecessarily because certificate holders and their personnel do not want to assume this health risk.”

The FAA granted similar exemptions to Part 135 carriers in response to two National Air Transportation Association (NATA) petitions.

In some cases, the agency is developing procedures that will help industry stay compliant without requiring an FAA inspector’s in-person validation. The agency is close to finalizing guidance for incorporating remote connectivity, such as a video feed, into procedures that normally require an FAA inspector on-site. 

Video feeds are permitted for observing certification-related tests, so long as the process is part of an FAA-approved plan. The new guidance would allow certificate holders to broaden use of remote feeds for use in training, inspections and other procedures manufacturers and maintenance providers need to comply with the agency’s regulations.

“This is the new reality,” said Sarah MacLeod, executive director of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA). “The agency has to be able to conduct normal activity and verify compliance as much as possible” using technology such as video feeds. “An inspector can say, ‘You said you were going to clean up that stockroom. Show me that it’s cleaned up,’” she added.

ARSA and 15 other organizations worked with the FAA on draft guidance in 2018. The FAA published the draft, solicited public comments, and told industry that a final version would be out in late 2019.

The FAA also plans to temporarily relax some personnel-renewal deadlines that require in-person meetings. Recurrent training requirements for designees will not be enforced during the pandemic. Designees with renewals in the next few months will be permitted to keep their privileges and complete their training once social-distancing protocols are relaxed. Class one medical certificates will be automatically extended for 90 days.

Agency officials shared details of some plans on a recent teleconference with industry representatives. The new guidance is expected to begin flowing out imminently, according to a recap of the meeting published by the Modification and Replacement Parts Association.

Another issue that the agency has addressed: removing red tape so that Part 147 schools can shift to online classes for aviation maintenance technicians (AMT) working towards their airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificates. Under current protocol, the FAA approves so-called “distance learning” curriculum on a class-by-class basis—a process that the agency acknowledges can be “time-consuming.” That is one reason only five of the 170 FAA-approved Part 147 schools have embraced distance learning for their A&P candidates. 

Guidance issued Mar. 12 gives schools leeway to adopt temporary distance-learning and testing programs to help keep students learning while complying with social-distancing protocols. Agency approval is still required, but it will be fast-tracked.

The distance-learning addresses content-heavy coursework, but it does not help with hands-on exercises, such as tearing down an engine, that are part of every A&P course. Schools are adjusting by adopting social-distancing protocol, such as breaking students into small groups and having each one participate in separate hands-on exercises.

The pandemic’s impact on air-travel demand has led carriers around the globe to cut flights. The FAA earlier in March waived minimum slot-use and schedule-determination restrictions at six affected airports through May 31. Responding to pleas from several carriers and the IATA, it recently extended the waivers through Oct. 24, the end of the region’s peak summer season airline scheduling period.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.