After lulling a suspect into a false sense of security, Peter Falk’s famous fictional detective would leave the interview, only to return moments later with the words “just one more thing,” at which point he would ask a critical question, often leaving the witness perplexed or thunderstruck.
A similar dynamic can sometimes take place in aircraft certification projects, where the company seeking certification, known as an “applicant,” believes it is well on track to accomplishing all required milestones when someone from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) that it has never dealt with before asserts that there’s “just one more thing” and raises an issue for the first time that could potentially derail the entire project.
This phenomenon has become somewhat more evident as new entrants bringing innovative technologies and concepts of operations to aviation, such as drone delivery and advanced air mobility, seek to obtain regulatory approval of their products and operations. Projects seem to be rolling along successfully when a person from the FAA at the back of the room sticks up their hand for the first time and raises a new concern.
The Certification Process
In a traditional aircraft certification project, the applicant develops a detailed certification plan that identifies all applicable airworthiness regulations and how the applicant will show compliance to them.
The plan goes through various reviews and revisions and, by the time the applicant is building products, both it and the FAA have a good idea of what the path to certification will look like. Through the logical progression of design work, the focus during early stages of certification activities tends to be on the product and its systems, and not the details of how the product will be operated and integrated into the national airspace system. This is not generally a problem for traditional aircraft, as their operation and integration into the NAS is understood.
Nevertheless, even in projects involving traditional aircraft, it is not uncommon for the applicant to go to a meeting with the FAA at a late stage only for someone to say there’s “just one more thing.” At this point, the issue raised may well relate to operations and other matters of concern to Flight Standards instead of the Aircraft Certification Service.
The impact of a late-stage issue raised in this manner can be minor, or it can lead to substantial delay as designs are changed and certification plans, means of compliance, and deliverables are reassessed. Complications and delays are compounded where the product is intended for export and changes to its design must be validated by international authorities.
Where the project involves something novel like UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) or AAM (Advanced Air Mobility), a much higher likelihood of getting Lieutenant Columbo’d by the FAA exists.
Operational Realities Can Lead to Critical-Stage Delays
The consequences of unforeseen, late-stage delays can be crippling to a start-up business and unsettling to its investors. The problem is that, although the product itself may be beyond state-of-the art in terms of technology and capability, the operational realities of how the product will be safely deployed at scale in navigable airspace can be uncertain, both as a general manner (the FAA and industry are working on this) and as specifically applied to the product itself until the product is sufficiently mature.
Because novel aircraft and operations represent new paradigms, the FAA will, by its nature, be cautious in approving them.
This is because the FAA is, above all, concerned with safety, and the Agency needs to have a firm idea of what right looks like before it can assess whether an aircraft or proposed operation is safe. From the FAA’s perspective, the range of potential unknowns and pitfalls relating to operational realities can be daunting, and it takes time to fully understand the hazards presented and how best to mitigate them.
Therefore, an applicant seeking FAA approval of novel aircraft and operations should bear the following in mind:
- It is essential to be proactive during the early stages of a certification project and identify potential sources of late-stage delay related to operationalizing the aircraft.
- The more the applicant can anticipate questions from the FAA over operational realities and address them before they are asked, the better.
- Although FAA specialists are likely well intended and may have given the impression that the applicant’s certification plan and proposed means of compliance are in good shape, down the road different FAA personnel could raise concerns that could materially impact the path to certification and push timelines and milestones to the right.
- What may initially seem self-evident as an appropriate means of compliance could, when viewed through the lens of operational realities, be insufficient.
Above all, transparent, sustained, and cooperative communication with the FAA throughout the course of the project is essential.
The certification of new aircraft designs and operational paradigms should not be a mystery, although it may seem so at times, and the best way to avoid a “just one more thing” conversation is for the applicant to be proactive in identifying and addressing operational realities with the FAA early in the life of a certification project.
About Our Author
Marc Warren is the co-leader of the Adams and Reese Aviation and Aerospace Team. Practicing law for more than 40 years, Marc is a respected leader in the international aviation bar and advises many of the world’s leading aviation and aerospace operators and manufacturers. With deep connections to industry regulators, associations, and leaders, Marc steers major airlines, defense, transportation, logistics and infrastructure companies, trade associations, and public venues, through FAA and Department of Transportation regulatory compliance, government investigations, and enforcement matters.