Industry Advances, Nav Database Rule Does Not

The field of technology today moves faster than anyone could have predicted two or more decades ago.  We take many of its developments for granted rather quickly.  After all, who can now imagine a world without the likes of microwaves, automatic sliding doors and cell phones?  The impact of technological advances on the aviation industry is great and swift.  As we as consumers adapt to these innovations, government (local, state or federal) has to adapt constantly to the new regulatory challenges created.

A few months ago, some of our Part 135 operators contacted us regarding CFR 43.3(g) as it relates to 14 CFR 43 Appendix A (c)(32).  For those unfamiliar with the rule, it classifies the updating of navigational databases as “preventative maintenance.”  14 CFR 43.3(g) allows certificated pilots to perform preventative maintenance on aircraft unless those aircraft are “used under part 121, 129, or 135.”  This prohibition, therefore, prevents pilots operating in a Part 135 environment from performing updates to navigational databases.

When the rule was issued in May 1996, the majority of navigational databases required removal of the unit from the instrument panel and, in some cases, disassembly of the unit itself.  It was the intent of this final rule to adapt federal regulations to the state of modern technology at that time.  Today, the navigational database update process, due to technological advances, has changed from a complex procedure occasionally requiring parts removal and/or disassembly to a more user-friendly, plug-and-play type of process.

Fourteen years have passed since that revision, a near eternity in the fast moving world of aviation and technology.  Several of our members have since petitioned the FAA to request exemption from the rule, stating economic hardship and safety concerns that arise from the current rule.  In denying these exemption requests, the FAA continues to base its position on an outdated understanding of the technology, ignoring operators’ explanations of the tremendous technological advances in avionics.  

Would safety not be of interest to the flying public?  Some of our members estimate that at any given point 75-90% of their fleet is away from base, often in foreign destinations, with no qualified maintenance technician nearby.  As a result, aircraft are often expected to fly using the MEL (Minimum Equipment List), meaning that they are flying with out-of-date navigational databases, creating a potential safety hazard to those sharing the skies and ground environment.  Pilots, the individuals interacting with these systems the most, often train the technicians on how to perform the updates so they may be done in compliance with the letter of the regulation.  Yet somehow, changing this is not in the interest of the flying public according to some in the FAA.  The rule as it stands not only constrains productivity, it also fails to provide protection from unnecessary financial and physical hazards.

Several weeks ago, NATA submitted a letter to the FAA’s Flight Standards Service, asking the FAA to review the rule and its exemption process.  A copy of this letter may be reviewed here.  The association will continue to pressure the FAA to make reasonable accommodations for pilots to complete these updates.  We’ll keep you informed of our progress.

Submitted by NATA Manager of Regulatory Affairs Dennis Van de Laar,
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