I decided some years ago that I just didn’t want to crawl under my cars and do the oil changes. It’s dirty, messy and just a lot of trouble. I have my favorite car mechanic that I trust for all things automotive. He always has some sort of special offer which usually starts with some basic service but includes “free” 40 point inspection. Jiffy Lube, Christian Brothers and all the mainstream automotive service providers have similar offerings. Their model is the perfect example of how an airplane annual inspection should occur but often doesn’t.
The process is that the oil change and the 40 point inspection is completed and a list of discrepancies is generated. Nothing is worked on save the oil change. I get a phone call with a very long list of all the things the mechanic is certain should be done to my car. Many are simple noncritical items that I have no intention of having addressed on a thirteen year old vehicle. Some are routine service items like windshield washer fluid service. Once in awhile something more insidious is noted like a leaking water pump. But no work has been performed because I’ve not given my authorization yet. This Jiffy Lube model is exactly how we in aviation should be doing our maintenance authorizations.
Once every twelve months the FAA requires that an A&P with Inspector Authorization determine if an airplane meets the requirements to be considered Airworthy. This annual event comes with a lot of apprehension, anticipation, mistrust, misplaced trust, uncertainty and complete misunderstanding. Mostly misunderstanding, and that’s from both sides.
I’ve spent years observing a very strange distortion in the perception of who is responsible for what and who has what authority when it comes to aircraft maintenance. We all, aircraft owners and mechanics alike, should understand each other’s proper job functions. Common business logic as well as the FAA regulations point to how the relationship is supposed to work. How we arrived at this situation has some very interesting reasons. The current situation didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be corrected overnight either.
Many of you may be surprised that the FAA has some very valuable regulations to guide the pilot/owner and maintenance provider through the various mutual interactions of airworthiness. The FAA makes it very clear in CFR 91.403 that the aircraft owner/operator is ALWAYS responsible for ensuring the airworthiness of his/her airplane. There is one specific moment when an FAA certified mechanic with Inspector Authorization is required to determine an airplane’s airworthiness. That is not the same as being responsible for it. All the IA must do is inspect the plane and report anything that does not meet the minimum criteria for airworthiness. The regulations never give any authority to an A&P IA in regards to creating airworthiness.
CFR 43 is where all the mechanic rules reside. It’s very short, which is good for us mechanics because we’d rather fix things than read about them. CFR 43.9 talks about maintenance record entries required after maintenance is performed. It says nothing about determining or ensuring airworthiness for anything except as relating to the work performed. Of course, should a mechanic see some problem on the plane unrelated to the work at hand, the owner wants to know about it. However, there’s no regulatory requirement for such and no authority given to the mechanic to take any action. The decision is still the owner/operator’s to make.
CFR 43.11 presents the requirements for recording an annual inspection including those that result in an Unairworthy sign off. CFR 43.11(5) explains exactly what is to be done if the plane is found with unairworthy issues. A list of discrepancies is to be created and provided to the owner/operator. That list is to be maintained as part of the aircraft’s maintenance records by the owner/operator in accordance with CFR 91.417(b)(3). Notice that record keeping is regulated in CFR 91 which applies to owner/operators, not CFR 43, which applies to maintenance providers.
The owner/operator may authorize the same A&P IA that did the annual inspection to also perform the required repairs. He/she may also take the plane to some other maintenance provider(s) to have the work performed. If the list contains items that meet the limits of Preventive Maintenance per CFR 43 Appendix A, then the pilot owner may perform and properly document those repairs in accordance with CFR 43.9.
Mechanics contracted to perform maintenance don’t need to know that a discrepancy list exists. Not saying it should be hidden from them, just that there’s no requirement or need for mechanics to have the list. They perform whatever tasks are given them and make an appropriate CFR 43.9 entry. This entry only creates responsibility for the work performed, nothing else. The authority and responsibility to ensure all the items on the list are completed lies totally on the aircraft owner/operator.
Once all the items on the airworthiness list are addressed and actions recorded in the maintenance records, the airplane is considered airworthy. There is no entry made stating it’s airworthy. There can be a different maintenance provider for each discrepancy, but none of them have the responsibility to determine if all items on the list have been completed. Each entry is just a CFR 43.9 entry, and responsibility is limited to the work performed.
If the annual inspection is completed and signed off as Unairworthy in January, the next annual is still due by the end of January the following year. The airworthiness list may have only one item on it, like a flat tire, which the pilot/owner can address as Preventive Maintenance. If it takes six months for that to get repaired, it does not change the date of recurrence for the annual inspection. It’s just six months of lost flight time.
We all understand that the norm is for the A&P IA that does the inspection will also provide the repairs and sign the inspection date when all work is completed. It is important that we understand the proper process in those situations that aren’t normal and what options are available to the owner/operator. Regardless, the owner/operator should never give up the authority for making airworthiness decisions, in part because he/she can’t give up the responsibility. By the same token, no mechanic should ever take on someone else’s authority which could create an unwanted financial responsibility.
I often hear war stories about the mechanic that wanted to “ground” someone’s plane due to some airworthiness finding. The reality is that no mechanic or inspector ever has that authority. At worst, the inspector may chose to sign the inspection as Unairworthy. If the plane is in a shop for a tire change and the mechanic notes the left wing is missing, he may report it to the owner, but it doesn’t preclude him from signing off the tire change. The owner/operator may then take the plane elsewhere for the needed repairs. This may require an FAA Special Flight Permit to fly the plane to another maintenance provider.
We need to understand that the owner/operator always has the authority and responsibility for airworthiness of the airplane. The FAA regulations support this and always have. Somewhere along the line, we got the roles reversed thinking the mechanics were in authority.
I think I may have realized how our industry came to this wrong minded state. The root cause of our current situation goes back prior to the creation of the FAA. Back in the day, almost all general aviation mechanics, pilots and owners came from the military or the airlines. In those worlds the maintenance departments are in total control of all maintenance decisions. Pilots in these operations merely generate a list of discrepancies encountered during the day’s flying. They have no say in how or when corrective actions are taken. By the time the FAA created CFR Part 91 and 43, the industry was already ingrained with the old mindset. The correct roles for mechanics and owner/operators of CFR Part 91 operated aircraft is also exactly how the FAA defines them, but they never had a chance to take hold.
As a lifelong mechanic, my hope is that all mechanics would follow the FAA model. Get all those maintenance recommendation refusals from owner/operators in writing, signed and dated. Doing more maintenance than needed or authorized is just exposing oneself to more financial liability. As a longtime pilot and aircraft owner, my hope is that all owners will not put their trusted mechanics at risk by exposing them to responsibilities and liabilities that truly belong with the owner. The FAA got this set of regulations right. Following them is a true non-zero-sum-gain (Win-Win) for all involved.