Regulators Improvise Under Pandemic Pressures
A March 11 session of the 2021 Annual Conference of the U.S.’s Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA) provided a full view of the challenges and achievements of international aviation regulators during the COVID crisis. Several common themes emerged: heavy reliance on remote technologies to do inspections, necessary exceptions to normal rules to help carriers meet the crisis, and delays in previously planned development, due to at-home work and restricted travel.
The session kicked off with an introductory presentation by Xue Shijun, deputy director general of the Flight Standards Department of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) as this was CAAC’s first appearance at an ARSA meeting. Xue gave an overview of continued airworthiness management, while promoting aviation development, as viewed by his agency. Generally, operators must ensure maintenance schedules are met while MROs ensure maintenance is done properly.
CAAC safety policies were developed in four stages: quality control in the late 1980s, quality assurance in the 1990s, total quality management in the beginning of the new millennium and safety management systems beginning in 2005 and still in process of development.
Xue then listed the special challenges (and solutions) foreign MROs face in supporting Chinese aviation while meeting CAAC requirements. CAAC has limited staff, and a letter of intent from the Chinese customer is thus required. Surveillance is difficult, so inspections by local authorities are necessary.
Personnel qualifications may differ between authorities, so CAAC accepts local licenses. Subcontracting rules may also differ, so CAAC makes case-by-case exceptions. Part approval may differ, so the Chinese airline may need to get a special approval. In general, special exceptions and approvals by CAAC are temporary solutions, while the long-term solutions will be bilateral cooperation by mutual agreements with other nations’ regulators.
There have been of course other challenges during the COVID pandemic. CAAC automatically extended approvals for foreign MROs through the end of 2020. Further extensions may be granted if a Chinese airline needs a foreign MRO and a satisfactory maintenance quality survey is done.
CAAC is also simplifying the approval process for foreign OEMs and MROs that are approved by local authorities. And there are case-by-case approvals of certain parts if a Chinese carrier has an emergency need and the part is approved by local authorities.
Joao Garcia, head of Flight Standards at Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Authority (ANAC), reviewed some organizational changes at his agency. Garcia then noted that ANAC used remote inspection in 2020 and plans to use them in the future as a complement to on-site surveillance. “Low bandwidth made things challenging in some cases,” Garcia acknowledged. For the future, ANAC inspections might be broken down into smaller modules to be done remotely.
ANAC recently extended the scope of maintenance beyond just line maintenance that can be performed under an airline’s air operator certificate. The extension moves toward the FAA model of an AOC and will be effective in May 2021.
ANAC has also revised its rules aimed at risks of drug use and removed their application to shops outside of Brazil. ANAC’s Safety Management System requirements have been revised and clarified.
Although there have been some delays, ANAC expects to sign its Maintenance Annex Guidance (MAG) with the FAA by the end of 2021. Online training on this MAG is possible.
A memorandum of understanding has been signed with the UK Civil Aviation Authority, and both MAG and Technical Implementation Procedures (TIP) have been in force between the two nations since January 1. These agreements mirror their counterparts in ANAC-EASA agreements.
Garcia also noted that further progress has been made in agreements between ANAC and EASA.
David Mailins, head of Airworthiness with the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, outlined the CAA’s vision for its new role as an independent regulator. Short-term, CAA’s restart plan for ramping up aviation as the pandemic ends will be rolled out in the near future and will reflect the agency’s analysis of relative risks.
Neil Williams, safety policy manage for Operations at the UK CAA, reviewed the status of CAA’s agreements with other nations’ regulators. The CAA has negotiated bilateral agreements with the U.S., the EU, Japan, Singapore, Canada and Brazil, largely replicating the agreements these nations had with the EU’s EASA. For example, under the U.S.-UK Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement (BASA) for design certification, FAA will recognize CAA Form 1s for new production items. Under the same BASA for maintenance, FAA will recognize CAA Part 145 certificates as a basis for issuing FAA Part 145 approvals consistent with the two nations’ MAG.
Jeff Phipps, chief of Operational Airworthiness in the Standards Branch of Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA), told attendees that “the future is looking brighter,” and he expects to be working back in his office later in 2021.
TCCA staff spent much of the past year working remotely and mostly on COVID-related initiatives. These included allowing more time for mechanics to renew their licenses, an extension that will expire in December 2021.
In addition, TCCA issued a series of Internal Process Bulletins, or IPBs. One allowed operators a little more time to get scheduled maintenance done, but not for airworthiness directive or airworthiness limitation items. As most of Canada’s mechanic schools were closed, another IPB allowed alternative learning methods.
A third allowed commercial airlines that operated in the U.S. to get maintenance done at U.S. shops that did not have TCCA approval. Finally, an IPB allowed more type training through distance learning, an allowance that currently expires in March, but will be extended.
Phipps said Canadian mechanics can now renew their licenses on line.
TCCA also issued guidance on passenger aircraft being converted to cargo carriage and on proper methods for returning parked aircraft to service.
With COVID pressures and at-home working, much of TCCA’s new regulatory development was put on hold or slowed. The agency did manage to issue an exception to normal rules for Non Required Safety Enhancing Equipment, or NORSEE, products.
And TCCA and FAA continued work on their Maintenance Implementation Procedures (MIP), Revision 2, which Phipps hopes to complete next year. A treaty with EASA and the EU was concluded, and Revision 3 of their MAG is expected in 2022.
TCCA did finish a working agreement with the UK CAA.
Collaboration with Brazil’s National ANAC was delayed, and a Technical Agreement-Maintenance (TA-M) is expected by early 2022.
In response to an attendee question, Phipps said operators should be able to use airplane health systems to schedule maintenance of non-safety items, and he predicts that TCCA will expand AHM usage more broadly in future years.
The Canadian regulator expects to resume travel in late 2021 or early 2022. And TCCA’s future normal will see a mix of personal and virtual visits to regulated companies. There will be virtual learning in schools, virtual tools will be used to plan on-site visits, and virtual training will be used more as well. Virtual technology will also be used for experts to supervise AOG repairs.
Karl Specht, principal coordinator of Organization Approvals, outlined some coming changes in EASA regulations. His agency has published an Opinion on safety management system implementation in Part 145 repair stations that he expects will be voted on this summer, adopted by the end of 2021 and required to be in place by the end of 2024.
EASA SMS rules do not apply to Part 147 mechanic schools, and they have already been applied to Continuing Airworthiness Management Organizations.
EASA has completed its exception from Form 1 requirements for non-safety parts.
Rick Domingo, executive director of FAA’s Flight Standards Service, said the past year had been spent in “learning a lot, and we are still learning.” His agency is now preparing for the new normal, post-pandemic.
FAA has used remote inspections for both certification and renewals of Part 145 stations. Domingo said data capture and video capture enabled by this technology were big benefits, in addition to avoiding travel.
The agency conducted 300 virtual surveillances in 43 countries during the past year and expects to continue using the technology with some modifications. Domingo said the major challenges to virtual technology include connectivity and bandwidth. “The keys to using it are planning, preparation and patience.” He recommends a 2-3 hour limit on virtual sessions and use of high-speed Wi-Fi connections.
FAA issued many exemptions during the past year, including a major one for cargo carriage in passenger aircraft.
For the aviation recovery, FAA plans to issue only carefully targeted exemptions, not as broadly applicable as the exception issued during the COVID crisis itself. Long-term, the agency will continue to evaluate virtual technologies.
Dan Elgas, manager of FAA’s Strategic Policy Branch, said 2020 was a challenging year for the Aircraft Certification Service (AIR) due to the necessary focus on Boeing 737MAX, COVID and a significant reorganization of the division.
But the multi-year reorganization is now largely done, and future work will concentrate on continuous improvement.
COVID lessons included “virtual and remote technologies work,” Elgas stresses. There are challenges involving bandwidth and noise but the new tools “are here to stay.”
Elgas predicted the future would also include FAA’s response to new legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress late in 2020 in response to safety issues raised by MAX crashes.
Thomas Mickler, EASA’s Washington representative, outlined some of his agency’s high-level priorities during 2020. These included trying to alleviate regulatory burdens and seeking a unified safety protocol for all of Europe that would help lift COVID restrictions and improve passenger confidence. EASA has been working with ICAO’s recovery team on how to use vaccinations and other data and also with the European Commission on a digital certificate for vaccinations, which Mickler hopes will be rolled out in 3-4 months.
Progress continues to be made under the U.S.-EU BASA, with a meeting last November and the next two meetings set for April and September 2021. The EU has signed a BASA with the UK and BASAs with Japan and China were signed in 2020.
But all is not sweetness and light in EASA-U.S. relations, according to Lorenzo Pelligrini, EASA’s maintenance manager. The past year has seen an increase in findings during EASA inspections of U.S. repair shops, although the number of inspections has remained constant. Among the most frequent area of findings has been insufficient independent audits or quality assessments of maintenance processes.