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Who Can Return An Aircraft To Service On Behalf Of A Repair Station?

By Gregory J. Reigel

July, 2013 All rights reserved.

As we all know, FAA personnel do not always interpret the Federal Aviation Regulations consistently, or for that matter, correctly. Interpretations may vary between individual inspectors or between Flight Standards District Offices ("FSDOs"). Fortunately, if you have a question regarding interpretation of one of the regulations and you don't feel you have received a consistent or correct answer from the FAA, you can submit a request to the FAA's Office of the Chief Counsel for an official interpretation that will be binding upon all of the FAA's inspectors and FSDOs.

A repair station recently did just that. Apparently the repair station's local FSDO advised that a person employed by a repair station may only approve items for return to service when that person is certificated under 14 C.F.R. Part 65 to work on those items, the same as the person would if working on his or her own as an A&P. However, the repair station believed that a repair station employee approving an article for return to service following maintenance on it does so using the repair station certificate and not the person's A&P certificate. As a result of the confusion, the repair station requested a formal legal interpretation.

The repair station wanted to know what certification(s) an individual must possess under 14 C.F.R. 145.157(a) in order to be authorized to approve an article for return to service following maintenance, preventive maintenance, or alteration by an FAA-certificated repair station. Specifically, the repair station asked "[d]oes an A&P certificated mechanic returning to service an item under the repair station as per FAR 145.157 need a repairman certificate (in addition to an A&P certificate) for any of the following items for which the repair station is qualified to perform in its OPS specs?"

On March 23, 2012, the Office of Chief Counsel issued a response to the repair station's request (the "Interpretation"). The Interpretation initially noted that 14 C.F.R. 145.157(a) states:
A certificated repair station located inside the United States must ensure each person authorized to approve an article for return to service under the repair station certificate and operations specifications is certificated under part 65.
It then re-stated the repair station's question asking "whether the phrase 'is certificated under part 65' means appropriately certificated, i.e., with either a mechanic certificate (airframe and/or powerplant) or repairman certificate, as applicable, for the type of maintenance being performed."

Next, the Interpretation agreed with the repair station and confirmed that "when a repair station performs maintenance on an item and approves it for return to service, both the maintenance and related approval are done by the repair station." Thus, when a person signs an approval to return an article to service, the person uses/references the repair stations certificate number, not his or her mechanic or repairman certificate number. It went on to note that under 14 C.F.R. 145.151(a) the repair station must still ensure the person returning the article to service on behalf of the repair station is qualified to do the approval, even though the person is not using his or her certificate number.

The confusion regarding this issue, according to the Interpretation, arose because the modifier "appropriately" was inadvertently and inexplicably omitted as a qualifier of persons required to be "certificated under part 65" when the FAA amended the repair station rules in 2001. The Interpretation acknowledged that the FAA did not intend to omit the term "appropriately" as a qualifier in the regulation. Acknowledging its mistake, it then concluded that "[w]hile the FAA's intent in 2001 may have been to require persons authorized to approve an article for return to service to be appropriately certificated under part 65, the plain language of the regulation does not require it."

Finally, the Interpretation answered the repair station's question with a hypothetical:
So, hypothetically, for example, if the only part 65 certificate held by a repair station employee who approved an article for return to service is a parachute rigger certificate, the FAA could probably not sustain a violation of 145.157(a) against the repair station.
Thus, without the qualifier "appropriately" in the current regulation as written, the person signing the return to service merely has to have some certification under Part 65, regardless of whether it is related to the maintenance that was performed.

Now, if you are thinking that the FAA has rolled over on the issue by admitting its error, or that it is left without a remedy in this hypothetical situation, that isn't the case. The Interpretation concludes with the caution, or threat depending upon your perspective, that
[i]f the FAA had reason to suspect that the employee was not properly qualified to approve the article for return to service, the agency could conduct a reexamination of the repair station under the authority of 49 U.S.C 44709 to assess its compliance with 145.15l(b), which requires that each repair station must provide qualified personnel to, among other things, approve an article for return to service.
In that situation, in order to pass the re-examination and avoid a violation of 14 C.F.R 145.151(b) the repair station would have to prove that the person approving the item for return to service met the knowledge and experience requirements of someone appropriately certificated under Part 65 for the maintenance that was performed. Not always an easy task when the person isn't certificated.

As a practical matter, this probably doesn't affect most repair stations that do, in fact, have appropriately certificated personnel approving items for return to service. But for repair stations experiencing personnel challenges/deficiencies while still trying to perform maintenance, this Interpretation's conclusions and caution bear consideration.

As a final note, the Interpretation indicates that amendments to the repair station rules are anticipated to correct this "oversight", as with all rulemaking, that will likely not happen in the near future. However, until the regulation is amended, this Interpretation will hopefully eliminate some of the confusion regarding the qualifications a person must possess in order to approve an item for return to service on behalf of a repair station.

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