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Service Bulletins: What Is An Aircraft Owner To Do?

By Gregory J. Reigel

© 2006 All rights reserved.

If you own an aircraft, you no doubt have received a “service bulletin” from the manufacturer of your aircraft or one of its components (e.g. the engine, avionics or accessories). Depending upon the manufacturer, a service bulletin may also be called a “mandatory service bulletin,” “technical service bulletin,” “service letter” or “service instructions.” Service bulletins are automatically sent to the owner of an aircraft by the aircraft or component manufacturer. However, aircraft owner’s should be aware that service bulletins are not automatically sent to maintenance providers.

A service bulletin contains a recommendation from the manufacturer with which it believes the aircraft owner should comply and that often reflects a safety of flight issue that the manufacturer believes should be addressed within a certain time frame. It may result from an improvement developed by the manufacturer. Or it may address a defect in its product or published documentation.

The manufacturer responds to one of these situations by issuing a service bulletin that recommends a certain type of inspection, replacing certain components, performing maintenance in a specific manner or limiting operations under specified conditions. Sometimes, compliance with a service bulletin may be triggered by the occurrence of a particular event (e.g. the lapse of time or operation under certain types of conditions).

Although a service bulletin may be labeled or characterized by the manufacturer as “mandatory,” it is important to know that compliance with a service bulletin is not specifically required under the Federal Aviation Regulations (“FAR’s”) unless the service bulletin is accompanied by or includes an Airworthiness Directive. Airworthiness directives affect safety of flight and compliance is mandatory. However, a review of FAR Part 43, Appendix D, which details the maintenance required in connection with an aircraft’s annual or 100-hour inspection, will confirm that an aircraft may be returned to service without complying with a manufacturer’s service bulletin, except where an airworthiness directive is applicable.1

So, simply because the FAR’s do not specifically require an aircraft owner to comply with a service bulletin does this mean an aircraft owner can ignore service bulletins? We know that an aircraft owner will not invoke the wrath of the FAA if he or she does not comply with a service bulletin (unless, of course, the service bulletin contains an AD). But does this mean that the inaction will not come back to haunt him or her at some point in the future? Not necessarily.

We all want the aircraft we own and fly in to be safe. And we want other aircraft in the sky at the same time as us to be safe as well. The manufacturer issues a service bulletin because it believes compliance will make the aircraft or its components safer. (The manufacturer may also be trying to limit its exposure to products liability, but that is a discussion for another day.)

However, for an aircraft owner, compliance with a service bulletin typically translates into higher costs. Whether it is requiring replacement of a component or performance of a more elaborate and detailed inspection, a service bulletin’s recommendation usually means that the aircraft owner is paying more money in either parts or labor. As a result, some aircraft owners will defer or reject compliance with a service bulletin to save money.

This is especially true if the aircraft owner believes that the aircraft is still safe without compliance. After all, if a service bulletin does not contain an airworthiness directive, the FAA apparently does not deem its recommendations to be necessary or mandatory. So why should the aircraft owner? And why should the owner spend additional money for parts or maintenance that may or may not actually make the aircraft safer?

The obvious answer is safety. But how will an aircraft owner know whether the service bulletin really does address a safety of flight issue? Unless the aircraft owner is a maintenance provider, he or she will only be able to make that determination by thoroughly discussing the service bulletin and its requirements with a maintenance provider. If a service bulletin addresses a safety of flight issue, compliance should be without question.

When safety of flight is not necessarily an issue, an aircraft owner may then want to perform a cost benefit analysis to compare the cost of compliance (How much will the labor or parts required by the service bulletin cost?) with the benefit obtained by complying with the service bulletin (Will compliance enhance the safety or value of the aircraft or limit the aircraft owner’s liability exposure to third-parties?). This analysis and the answers to these questions should assist an aircraft owner in deciding whether he or she will comply with a particular service bulletin.

At the end of the day, it is the aircraft owner’s responsibility to decide whether or not he or she will comply with an applicable service bulletin. By talking with a knowledgeable maintenance provider, an aircraft owner can understand not only the requirements of compliance, but also the costs and benefits associated with compliance. Only then can an aircraft owner make an informed decision as to what to do with a service bulletin.

1 Despite the absence of a specific requirement in the FAR’s stating that compliance with service bulletins is mandatory, the FAR’s do generally require that an aircraft and its components are maintained in accordance with the manufacturer's maintenance manual. Some aircraft and component manufacturers have specified that their maintenance manuals include all service bulletins, instructions etc. As a result, an ongoing debate exists as to whether the manufacturer’s inclusion of service bulletins creates an obligation under the FAR’s to comply with those service bulletins.

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