Recently, a repair station lost its certificate because of the repair station’s failure to properly complete and maintain the paperwork associated with the capability list. This was not the first time I have seen this – I have represented other repair stations accused of the same sort of failure; but it shows how serious the FAA is taking capability lists. Unless you are willing to jeopardize your repair station certificate, you should be taking the capability list process just as seriously.
This article reviews the history and evolution of repair station capability lists in the United States, makes recommendations about how to audit capability lists, and examines specific problems that arise with capability lists and offers solutions designed to facilitate compliance and ease business operation.
A Brief History of Capabilty Lists
Repair stations are typically given one or more ratings and operations specifications. The ratings and operations specifications provide the limits within which the repair station is authorized to perform maintenance and alterations.
The FAA issues airframe ratings. It was very common for repair stations to obtain an airframe rating. In order to maintain the airframe rating, a repair station applicant needed to “provide suitable permanent housing for at least one of the heaviest aircraft within the weight class of the rating.” For repair stations that wanted to maintain a class four rating (large all metal airframes) in the 1980s, that meant housing sufficient for a 747. Thus, hangars would be designed around the largest civil transport category aircraft: the 747.
That did not mean that the facilities actually serviced 747s. Usually, they did not. A facility that was designed around the 747-100 could fit two 737 classics side-by side with extra room for equipment. The class four airframe rating meant that the repair station could generally service any airframe, so long as it could meet the other applicable regulatory requirement (like personnel, equipment, etc.).
The 747-400 was a problem.
The 747-400 added about five meters of wingspan to the aircraft. When it entered into service in 1989, repair station facilities that were designed precisely around the 747-100/200/300 were no longer qualified to hold the class four rating. If they could only push the walls out by five meters!
The FAA recognized he foolishness of requiring a repair station to push out its walls to accommodate the 747-400, when that repair station only worked on narrow-body aircraft. In order to accommodate these repair stations, the FAA began using capability lists. These were lists of the airframes that the repair station was capable of repairing. The idea was that this self-imposed limitation on the rating meant that the repair station only had to accommodate the heaviest aircraft on the capability list.
The capability list was not a 100% novel solution. The regulations already required similar lists for class 2 propeller rating and accessory ratings. These propeller and accessory lists were constrained by a need to obtain FAA-approval of changes. The requirement for FAA involvement made it difficult to make timely revisions to these lists, a fact noted by the FAA itself.
As time marched on, the capability list became popular, and it was added to the FAA’s regulations when the FAA revised the repair station regulations in 2001 (it became effective in 2003). The new capability list rule permitted any repair station with a limited rating to adopt a capability list (the new regulation thus promoted adoption of limited ratings). The list would describe each article on which the repair station was authorized to work. The list could be amended upon a repair station self-evaluation; the self-evaluation would ensure that the repair station had the required facilities, equipment, materials, technical data, processes, housing, and trained personnel in place to properly perform the work on the article being added. The repair station would be required to notify the FAA periodically of the amendments, but the period and process for notification were intended to be set by the repair station, in its manual.
The new focus on limited ratings was a bit of a change. In fact, the original proposed rule (published in 1999) would have applied the capability list as a requirement for all repair stations. The final rule made it an option for limited rating repair stations. One of the specific reasons for codifying the capability list rule was to make it easier for repair stations to add capabilities, by removing the FAA approval that is required for operations specifications changes.
Today, it is common for repair stations to rely on capability lists; but a list that was once looked-upon as a problem-solving device is now creating problems of its own.
Audit Your Capability List System
Capability list issues are a known problem in the industry and FAA penalties for capability list issues can be severe. It is important for repair stations to ensure that their capability lists are complete, and are being properly created and maintained.
Repair stations should certainly be auditing their capability lists; but capability list problems arise in repair stations that did not notice the problem because they were operating on a business-as-usual basis. We recommend using periodic third-party auditing to ensure compliance.
What should the auditors look for? I usually like to have two major focus areas. First, ensure that the capability list accurately reflects the work you do (completeness). Second, ensure that you are creating, maintaining, and communicating the list correctly (correctness).
Auditing the capability list for completeness means ensuring that each job you’ve done was within the scope of your ratings and capability list at the time it was done. It is not enough that the job is listed on today’s capability list. It has to have been listed on the capability list at the time it was performed. For this analysis, it is important to be able to identify the dates on which the capability list was amended.
You ought to have the self-evaluation records – retaining documentation of each capability list self-evaluation was intended by the FAA. The FAA anticipated when it codified the capability list rule that such lists could be maintained electronically, and if you keep your records electronically then this may make it easier to pull and review those records.
What if you discover incongruities, like work that was performed before the article was added to the capability list? If you discover issues like this, then you should discuss the possibility of self-disclosure with an aviation attorney. You should also perform a root cause analysis to identify how this happened, so you can work on your capability list system to ensure it is corrected to prevent problem recurrence.
You may be able to use your information technology system as both an audit tool and as a compliance assurance tool.
As an audit tool, you can run a program to check when work began on each project and compare that date against the date on which the article (the subject of the work) was added to the capability list. This is far more efficient than reviewing paper records one-by-one. It does require a sufficiently robust taxonomy, though, to ensure that the capability list can be searched. For example, if the capability list permits work on a higher-level-assembly, and all subsidiary detail parts, then you have to anticipate that future work will include overhauls of those detail parts. If the program checks a detail part number again the capability list, then it might not generate a positive result if the program cannot identify the article in question as a detail part of the high level assembly. Obviously, one way to implement this might be to reference the illustrated parts catalog (IPC) as a part of the system. The IPC listing should not necessarily reflect the depth of your capability list. Listing a higher-level-assembly, and including “and all subsidiary detail parts” is a much better approach to creation of the capability list. The IPC reference should instead reflect a background function that could be programmed into the checking program. Because IPCs change over time – part numbers can be added or subtracted based on commercial variations like a change in vendors – it makes sense for the checking program’s log to include the date of the search and the revision level of any reference.
Using a program to check past compliance, though, reflects a lagging indicator; and that is why it is important to ensure that you audit the system surrounding the creation, maintenance, and communication of the capability list. If properly drafted, the process should be designed to promote compliance, and should allow management to manage compliance.
If you create a checking program to audit past capability list compliance, then this can also serve as the basis for a program that runs in the background to ensure continued compliance.
As a compliance assurance tool, you can program the system to refuse to begin a project until the article in question has been added to the capability list. Practical ways to implement this can include:
- refusing to permit the printing of a project traveler;
- refusing to permit ordering of spare parts specific to the project;
- refusing to permit the requisition of spare parts from inventory for the project; or
- any other process that effectively prevent the project from beginning until the necessary capability list element has been successfully added.
This sort of compliance assurance may seem frustrating to those who want to start a project, but it forces compliance with the repair station’s capability list procedures before a non-compliance can occur.
Check Your Self Evaluation Mechanisms
The regulations permit the repair station to establish many of the details of the capability list process in the repair station manual, like the self-evaluation process. Check the process defined in the repair station manual for two different dimensions. First, is the process sufficient to establish that the repair station is fully capable of performing the work?
The second check has to be for ease of use and compliance. Are there unnecessary steps in the process? For example, I have seen facilities that completed a checklist for the self-evaluation, and then added the capability to a database that was not the capability list. As a third step, the article would be added to the capability list. The database was the resource that the staff would check for a capability, but the separate capability list was the resource that was shared with the FAA to describe the repair station’s capabilities. If a disconnect happened between adding a capability to the database and adding it to the capability list, then this could create a non-compliance for the company. A much better process would be to define the database of capabilities as the capability list. This eliminates an unnecessary step that added no value, and that created a compliance risk. Remember, the repair station is responsible for creating the processes in the repair manual, and also for complying with them. It is like being allowed to write the final exam for a class you want to ace. It doesn’t make sense to write a process that you can’t follow and it doesn’t makes sense to add steps that add no value.
Once you are comfortable with the written process, then check the implementation of the process. Is it being followed? Every time? Follow the process from beginning to end with the employees who do this every day. Are they following the process as it is written? If the answer is no, then this could reflect a deeper systemic problem that requires the staff to be refocused on following the manual provisions.
Approval and Reporting
Another problem area is the approval and reporting mechanisms for the capability list. On the approval front, I have seen repair station problems arise because a single signature was missing from the list of departments that were supposed to approve a self-evaluation (according to the repair stations’ own procedures). Similarly, I have seen reporting problems where the mechanisms for reporting changes o the FAA were unnecessarily complicated or burdensome.
You should be thinking about how amendments are approved internally – a simple signature from the accountable manager is often best. The accountable manager can review the self-audit and then be responsible for ensuring the other internal approvals and acquiescences are obtained before signing the amendment. An accountable manager signature is not a legal requirement – it is merely a recommendation that can be implemented to suit the needs of the repair station. The important thing is that a complicated approval mechanism – especially one that requires complicated or unnecessary record-keeping – can create non-compliance risks that add no safety value to the process, so the process should be simplified.
It is typically not necessary for the FAA to approve changes to the capability list. Nonetheless, I still see repair stations that require FAA approval or response before implementing such a change. The original purpose, when capability lists were added to the regulations, was to take the FAA out of this process, and to make the process of adding a capability less onerous. Adding the FAA back into the process when they don’t need to be in the process defeats the purpose of the rule. If your manual requires FAA approval or response before amending the capability list, then this is something you should be working to change with your Principle Maintenance Inspector.
Finally, make sure you have a realistic reporting mechanism for capability list changes. You are required to report to the FAA such changes on a schedule described in your manual. Normally, this will be reported by submitting the current version of the list (with changes redlined) on a periodic basis. The actual period may depend on your relationship with the Principle Maintenance Inspector, but every six to twelve months seems reasonable. I have seen repair stations that skip a report because there is no change. This makes the reporting process irregular, and irregularity in reporting can lead to a missed report when the report is needed; thus I recommend that reporting be accomplished on schedule even if there are no changes to the capability list. It is wise to align this capability list reporting process with other regular reporting obligations, in order to make the FAA reporting process as regular as possible. Calendaring systems can help ensue that those responsible for reporting remember to do so, and those responsible for management know to look for the completion of this task.
Focus on capability lists has shifted from the earlier priority of using them to ease compliance and facilitate the process of adding new capabilities. The new focus is on ensuring they are completed and used correctly. This focus is leading to repair station certificate actions that can be devastating to a business. Arguing that this is a mere paperwork exercise is an insufficient defense to a capabilities list enforcement action, even when you can prove that the underlying work was done correctly. Using information technology infrastructure, auditing, and careful review and improvement of procedures can help to maintain your company’s compliance.