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July 06, 2017

What Are "Maintenance Instructions" And Why Should You Care?

If you are an air carrier operating aircraft with nine passenger seats or less under 14 C.F.R. Part 135, you know that 135.421(a) requires you to comply with either (a) the manufacturer's recommended maintenance program, or (b) a program approved by the Administrator, for the aircraft and its engine(s), propeller(s), rotor(s), etc. And when we look at 135.421(b) we see that the manufacturer's maintenance program is one which is contained in the maintenance manual or "maintenance instructions." Most of us know what a maintenance manual looks like - usually it says "manual" right on it. But what does the regulation mean when it references "maintenance instructions"?

Fortunately, the FAA answered this question in a recent Legal Interpretation. According to the Interpretation, "maintenance instructions" include manufacturer's (aircraft, engine, propeller, rotor, and each item of emergency equipment) service bulletins, service letters, service instructions, etc., that specifically address a maintenance task or procedure and instruct or teach how to perform that task or procedure. And this is important, because when an air carrier chooses the manufacturer's maintenance program under 135.421(a), the air carrier must then comply with that program and the maintenance instructions included within that program.

The Interpretation points out that the air carrier is only required to follow "the maintenance procedures contained in those manufacturer's documents that were in effect on the date the certificate holder adopted the maintenance program." Although a manufacturer may make revisions to its recommended maintenance programs, including issuing future service bulletins, service letters or service instructions, the air carrier is not obligated to follow those later-issued procedures.

However, the Interpretation also notes that an exception to this rule would be if the maintenance program selected by the air carrier included a clause stating that the program, if selected, necessarily includes all future-issued service bulletins, service letters and service instructions, etc. And it goes on to observe that an air carrier would be bound by later-issued procedures if it adopted a manufacturer's maintenance program without a specified date, unless the air carrier later rejects that program and adopts a program of a specified date.

This Interpretation is consistent with previously issued legal interpretations addressing adoption of a manufacturer's "current" maintenance program. It also reiterates the FAA's position that a manufacturer's labeling of its service bulletins as "mandatory" has no regulatory effect unless they are already included in the maintenance program as adopted by the air carrier, or if the service bulletin is incorporated into an Airworthiness Directive or other rule by reference.

The Interpretation concludes by stating "[we] note that, although the procedures in the bulletin may not be mandatory from an FAA regulatory perspective, following them would be an acceptable means of addressing the damage at issue. Doing nothing after one of the listed damage events would not be acceptable to the FAA, and doing something else would run the risk that the FAA would find the attempted maintenance unacceptable."

So, at the end of the day it is important for air carriers to understand not only what maintenance program they have adopted, but also what is and is not included in that maintenance program. This knowledge will help air carriers comply with their programs and avoid unnecessary scrutiny and/or legal enforcement by the FAA.

Posted by Greg

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