SAS Revisions: A Cautionary Tale

At the recent NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition, John Duncan, head of the FAA’s Flight Standards division, emphatically told attendees of an education session that Data Collection Tools (DCTs) – the checklists that make up the oversight backbone of the FAA’s Safety Assurance System (SAS) – are inspector assignments and not “operator homework”.

I believe Mr. Duncan means for that to be the case – inspectors completing the DCTs for their assigned operators – but my experience in the field is more of the operator homework variety. But it can be beneficial for operators to complete their own DCTs, rather than having the inspector do it. You get to tell the inspector the answer, rather than having the inspector poke around in your stuff to find the answer. Plus, going through the checklists yourself gives you an opportunity to improve or revise your manuals as necessary to meet the requirements of the DCTs.

(Quick note: DCTs are not regulatory in nature. Technically, you don’t HAVE to do them at all or change any manuals to meet the “requirements”, but the FAA will tell you each item in the DCTs is based on a regulatory requirement, therefore you must “comply”. I can debate a good number of the DCTs applied to Part 135 operators as being outside of Part 135 regulations but in most cases, it’s easier to go along to get along. Yes, that hurts my soul a bit.)

In working with the DCTs over the past couple of years, I’ve noted an important and slightly disturbing trend – the DCTs change. They change often, in fact. This means the FAA has a way of quickly and easily changing the requirements for operators without any sort of rulemaking process.

Rulemaking – real rulemaking, not rulemaking by publishing a new Advisory Circular or revising a DCT – must follow the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and, in cases of “significant regulatory action”, Executive Order 12866 (EO 12866). The APA and EO 12866 require the federal agency considering a new rule or change to an existing rule to do things like:

  • Conduct an economic analysis of the rule,
  • Ensure it doesn’t conflict with other agencies’ regulations,
  • Submit a draft for public comment, and
  • Actually CONSIDER public comment and publish a disposition of those comments (i.e., address each comment or recommendation and state why it was or was not ultimately incorporated in the final rule).

Obviously, the formal process takes a fair bit of time – usually years. A DCT, however, can be changed very quickly. What this means for you, Part 135 operators, is a manual written or revised today to meet the requirements of the DCTs may be out of date tomorrow. And there’s no quick way – at least that I’ve discovered – to be advised of DCT changes. They’re posted on the Flight Standards Information Management System (www.FAA.fsims.gov) but you have to search FSIMS for your peer group or look for your peer group in the list of recently revised documents. It’s not a task you want to add to your daily list of things to do.

That said, do you want to chase ever-changing, not-required-but-kind-of-required standards anyway? Probably not.

So this serves as a cautionary tale – don’t assume that once you meet the DCTs, you’ll continue to be “in compliance” with them forever. Don’t be surprised if your inspector gives you a DCT in 6 months that you’ve already completed but this one looks different and has new requirements.

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