FAA Faces Pressure on Part 147 Rulemaking

Capitol Hill
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The FAA faced pressure yesterday from congress and industry stakeholders to get the ball rolling on modernizing outdated Part 147 curriculum during a hearing held by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation. The hearing, which centered on efforts to boost aviation maintenance workforce, highlighted key areas for improvement such as curriculum, funding and targeting of younger and more diverse workforce demographics.

During questioning by members of the congressional subcommittee, representatives from the FAA and the U.S. Government and Accountability Office noted that stakeholders all agree modernization is overdue for aging curriculum, but Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) pointed out that ongoing delays in FAA’s Part 147 rulemaking “vex us and the people we answer to.” Rep. Woodall (R-Ga.) went further, questioning the FAA’s continued role in mechanic certification due to its inability to keep curriculum regulations up to date with new technology compared to industry stakeholders speaking at the hearing, such as Gulfstream and Delta Air Lines.

“[The delay] tells me that, maybe, Gulfstream has a better shot at identifying the right skillsets for its mechanics than you do. As much as you care, you can’t possibly care more about Gulfstream safety than Gulfstream does,” said Woodall. “What is the value add of 60 years of government stumbling down the pavement on promulgating new training standards? Industry has to be moving faster than government is.”

In response, Kate Lang, FAA’s senior advisor for aviation workforce outreach, acknowledged the agency’s need to approach curriculum development going forward with better agility and real-time adaptability. Lang noted that FAA’s first order in this vein is issuing a final rule on Part 147 regulations, which has been in the works since the original notice of proposed rulemaking published in 2015. She estimates that FAA will achieve this by October of this year, which is sooner than the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) expected.

According to Crystal Maguire, ATEC’s executive director, this final rule hadn’t been expected until near the end of 2022, so she is dubious but hopeful on the timeline. Maguire adds that although some stakeholders she’s spoken to on Capitol Hill believe Rep. Woodall’s line of questioning goes too far, his position mirrors ATEC’s.

“If the FAA is going to be in charge of mandating and dictating curriculum requirements, then it has to do so in a way that allows it to be more agile,” says Maguire. She points to the recently introduced Promoting Aviation Regulations for Technical Training (PARTT) 147 Act as the solution to this problem. “It’s got bipartisan support, it’s got broad industry support and there’s a companion bill that’s the same language in the senate. I cannot believe it didn’t come up in the hearing,” she adds.

Under the proposed legislation, FAA would control the development of mechanic testing standards that would be evaluated continuously alongside technology changes in the industry. Part 147 schools would align curriculum with the mechanic standards, but the performance-based regulation would keep FAA out of actually determining what is being taught in classrooms.

Maguire points back to Woodall’s assertion about industry knowing better. “As he said, ‘Delta’s not going to hire an untrained mechanic to work on its airplanes.’ Well, neither is the FAA going to let an untrained mechanic have a certificate. So they still have a role to play, but there’s no reason why [FAA] should be dictating their curriculum requirements in such a nitty gritty fashion as it does now—and, quite frankly, in the proposed rule.”

According to Joseph McDermott, managing director, technical operations at Delta Air Lines, the airline would be “absolutely ready to go” on modernizing its curriculum in line with any proposed FAA Part 147 changes. “It’s too important to the industry to get that modified curriculum, specifically in avionics as well as in composites,” he notes.

Dana Donati, general manager and director of academic programs at LIFT Academy, concurs that curriculum changes in this vein could “happen overnight” at the Republic Airways-owned training academy. Meanwhile, witnesses at the panel from Vaughn College and Aviation High School stress that changing curriculum would take time—and changes to budget—but believe modernization is both achievable and key to attracting future workforce.

Steven Jackson, principal at Aviation High School, stated in his testimony that implementing changes to curriculum based on geographic needs could benefit AMT training and minimize financial strain. For example, Jackson points out that current curriculum could be beneficial for students in rural areas that need to perform maintenance on crop-duster type aircraft, but this training is obsolete for students in metropolitan areas that need to maintain modern, advanced aircraft.

Each of the hearing’s academic stakeholders agreed that one of the most important issues Congress should work on to address the workforce gap is increasing funding, both for the schools themselves and prospective students. Sharon Devivo, president of Vaughn College, said in her testimony that the average debt load for a student pursuing aviation maintenance is about $17,500 and that this presents a barrier to entry, particularly for underrepresented populations.

Although the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill established two new programs for workforce development, the $5 million in authorized grant money has yet to be given out. According to Lang, grants will start taking place in this fiscal year and FAA is trying to hit milestones as quickly as it can.

Devivo and Jackson also insist that exposing younger students, such as those at elementary and middle school levels, to aviation is another key factor in meeting future workforce needs.

“Fewer and fewer students are exposed to mechanical work—they do not work on their bikes, or tinker with their cars with their families. Our goods are becoming more and more digital and when they break, they are more easily replaced and repaired,” stated Jackson in his testimony. He adds that STEM coursework needs to provide more hands-on practical projects to expose students to the concept of learning and troubleshooting systems. Jackson also suggests that internship or apprenticeship opportunities should be expanded and incorporated into schools for students under the age of 18.

Lang echoed these sentiments, stating that the FAA is convinced that “we’ve got to catch kids early.” She noted that the FAA is working with younger students through its STEM Aviation and Space Education program, including a pilot program with four schools in Dallas to create an aviation curriculum.

Lindsay Bjerregaard

Lindsay Bjerregaard is managing editor for Aviation Week’s MRO portfolio. Her coverage focuses on MRO technology, workforce, and product and service news for AviationWeek.com, Aviation Week Marketplace and Inside MRO.