One of the biggest issues facing aircraft manufacturers is the need to streamline the government’s certification process, industry leaders say.
The volume of aviation products in development and the types and complexity of products are on the rise, and everyone feels the pressure to keep up – to stay competitive – said Walter Desrosier, vice president of engineering and maintenance for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, a Washington-based industry trade group.
The amount of work needed to certify products in development by manufacturers — from light recreational airplane makers to makers of the largest commercial airliners — has grown over the years, in terms of time, resources and paperwork.
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At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration has had flat or diminished resources, creating a bottleneck.
“They can’t continue to do the old way of doing it if they don’t have the resources,” Desrosier said.
Today, the FAA reviews and signs off on every piece of paper, every drawing and every compliance area, he said, although bigger manufacturers also have their own FAA designees to help.
But even using designees, the FAA is still very much involved all aspects of the entire design, Desrosier said.
To help, there’s support for the FAA to focus on a systems safety oversight that would use limited resources to focus on “safety critical” areas, including new technologies and new manufacturing methods, Desrosier said.
That means the FAA would oversee a company’s program with FAA-approved processes and procedures.
“Instead of kicking every tire, looking at every single drawing … they will spot check all the activities instead of doing all the work themselves,” Desrosier said.
Language in the FAA reauthorization bill signed by President Obama includes a commitment for the industry and the FAA to work together on ways to be more efficient, he said.
“It did task the FAA to undertake a review of the certification processes and look how to reform it to be more efficient,” he said.
Local aircraft manufacturers declined to discuss their views of the certification process, but analysts agree that companies are eager to get their upgrades and new products to market quickly to try to stay ahead or keep pace with the competition.
They’re often using new technology, new processes and new materials, said Rolland Vincent, president of consulting firm Rolland Vincent Associates in Plano, Texas. For example, more manufacturers are using composite materials.
“It can be very challenging,” Vincent said “In some cases, the FAA is learning at the same time the manufacturers are throwing things at them.”
Challenges also can arise when a manufacturer upgrades an airplane that’s been in service for many years.
“In some cases, the rules have changed over (that) time,” Vincent said. “What appears to be a small block-point change that should have been easy to do, (is difficult). It’s like opening a can of worms. Then other things have to be retested and recertified.”
Another challenge has been the trend to outsource work to suppliers, Vincent said.
In some cases, those suppliers haven’t had a lot of experience dealing directly with certification issues.
“There’s a lot of demand on the FAA,” Vincent said. “Hiring freezes at the FAA and reallocation of talent (has led to) kind of a perfect storm.”
It’s difficult to point fingers, he said.
“Everyone is doing the best they can,” he said. “It’s a pipeline issue. There’s so much that has to be done and so little time.”
Manufacturers introduce new airplane programs with a five-year development expectation in their business model. But the project can easily take six or seven years.
“Any aircraft that goes beyond a five-year product development window, there’s usually something in there that was unexpected from a certification point of view,” Vincent said.
The longer it takes to finish a product, the more things change – the rules change and people change, he said.
“Time is a killer for these programs,” Vincent said.
It also means delays in a manufacturer earning payback on its investments.
In 2004, the FAA developed a sequencing program for all new applications for certification approvals deemed to take the FAA more than 40 hours to accomplish.
All those programs get reviewed.
If the FAA doesn’t have the resources to start, it sends a 90-day delay letter.
“Every 90 days, you’d get another 90-day delay notice,” Desrosier said. “So you would never know when they were going to get started.”
“This is a workable issue,” Vincent said. “I think we’re going to see some innovative thinking going on here. We have to. It’s too important to America.”
The language in the FAA reauthorization bill that calls for collaboration between the industry and the FAA is encouraging, Desrosier said.
There are short and long-term changes that can be put into place.
One area that helps is the relatively recent establishment of an Organization Designation Authorization program.
The program allows large manufacturers to have their own FAA designees on staff.
Manufacturers now have the option to add more delegation authority, Desrosier said. The companies can invest in and recruit and train more designees under FAA oversight and approval as needed to help with an increase in workload, he said.
Longer term, the FAA has been considering a move in which the FAA would approve or certify the design organization to do the certification work.
It’s the way the FAA now does safety oversight for air carriers, repair stations and production organizations, Desrosier said.
“You certificate an airline to do certain things, and then they (the FAA) oversee them,” he said. “They certify the organization to do all the work. That’s one thing we think the FAA should be looking at.”
Instead of the FAA signing off on “every single piece of paper,” it would be a more efficient process.
“We’re very encouraged by the programs they’re looking at,” Desrosier said.