I get a lot of questions about the FAA’s requirements for aircraft parts traceability. And one of the first things I remind people of, when they ask, is that there is no general requirement under FAA regulations for aircraft parts traceability.
None. Yes, there are requirements for certain parties to prepare or maintain certain documents under U.S. law. For example, when any authorized party completes maintenance, they must complete a record of that work under 14 C.F.R. § 43.9. When a repair station completes a major alteration, it must complete a FAA Form 337. If that same repair station completes a major repair, then it must either complete a FAA Form 337, or else must place the maintenance release language found in the regulations on the work order (and return that work order to the client).
Those who remove life-limited aircraft parts from aircraft are required to engage in safe disposition of those parts, which can include documenting the current life status of the part, but this obligation can also be met through other non-document-based solutions. Operators are required to retain certain records. Records of major repairs must be retained for a year (or until superseded) while records of major alterations must be retained for the life of the product.
But in all of these requirements, there is no requirement under U.S. law that ANY document follow the aircraft parts from one owner to the next. This is a surprising revelation to most people in the aviation industry, who are used to the idea that an aircraft part cannot be purchased without “the right traceability.”
The idea of treating documentation of aircraft parts differently from documentation of complete aircraft is not a novel one. In FAA Registry cases, for example, the courts have recognized that the way that the law treats documentation of complete aircraft is different from the way that the law treats documentation of aircraft parts.
At this point, most of my readers will be thinking “well, Mr. Smarty-Pants Lawyer, if there is no legal requirement for aircraft parts traceability, then why do all of my customers as for traceability?”
The answer is, because of commercial practice. Let’s take life-limited parts as an example. Even though most people think that back-to-birth traceability is mandatory for such parts, the FAA has repeatedly said that U.S. law does not require back-to-birth traceability – not even for life-limited parts. A record of current life status is sufficient to meet the regulatory obligations of the operator. The FAA Chief Counsel’s Office has issued multiple opinion letters on the subject., But just try to sell a life-limited part without back-to-birth traceability! The marketplace has deemed that this is the “appropriate” paperwork for life-limited parts, and so commercial practice has evolved such that this form of traceability is a de facto requirement for U.S. transactions in life-limited parts. If you think about the commercial utility of such traceability, then its value becomes apparent. Life-limited parts are the parts that engineering analysis has shown to need to be removed from the aircraft before a likelihood of failure begins to be realistic. The life-limit is a known safe point, before which failure from fatigue or other related causes is unlikely. Thus, ensuring that a part has not yet reached its life limit is an important safety obligation. It is so important that installers wish to be able to review the paperwork to validate the allegations of current life status found in the records of current life status.
Thus, it has become a commercial norm to ask for back-to-birth traceability in order to have the documentation that validates the allegation of current life status.
In the 1990s, there was tremendous debate about unapproved parts. Ensuring that aircraft parts were manufactured under FAA production approval (or under a legally acceptable alternative) became an important goal for many in the 1990s. As a consequence, documentation supporting the contention that the part is an “approved” part became more transactionally important in the 1990s.
There is no one piece of paper that is always appropriate in every case. Often, an airworthiness approval tag (8130-3 tag) is a very reliable document asserting approval and airworthiness, because it cannot be issued under today’s standards without a finding that the part in question was produced under FAA production approval. And yet it is important for installers to recognize that the airworthiness approval tag tells you that the parts was an airworthy, approved, part at the time that the document was issued. It does not tell you whether the part is still airworthy (It could have been damaged or suffered degradation since the airworthiness approval tag was issued) and that is why the installer continues to play an important role in assessing current status of parts.
The installer’s role in assessing parts is another commercial driver for traceability. The installer of a part has an obligation to make a determination of airworthiness under Part 43 of the regulations (find that the part will return the product to a condition at least equal to original or properly altered condition), but it is common to rely on documents to help make that determination. Traceability, is thus an important tool to assist the installer in making the installer’s regulatorily-required findings.
So what does this tell us about the “right” traceability? It is whatever the installer feels is useful to help determine the quality and nature of the part. If the part can be discerned as an “approved part” based on part markings (e.g. TSOA markings or PMA markings) then these markings might be just as useful to an installer as paperwork would be. In other cases, manufacturer’s packaging might yield evidence of source. In still yet other cases, there might be nothing more than a certificate from an airline verifying that the part is a new surplus part. Do you have to rely on such documentation? NO! Are you allowed to rely on this documentation? YES (as long as it is trustworthy)!
And this is the real trick with traceability.
Certain documentation is deemed to be inherently more trustworthy than other documentation by the marketplace (remember the regulations do not describe appropriate nor inappropriate traceability documentation). Sometimes there will clearly be a “right” document. When exporting aircraft parts from the United States to Europe, for example, an 8130-3 is the “right” document according to the existing US-EU guidance.
And because the 8130-3 tag is issued by the FAA, that document has been considered to be an acceptable document for many other transactions. But if you are receiving a new surplus expendable, any document that you trust to validate that the part is really a genuine article that remains unused is sufficient. So, for example, an airline certificate verifying that the part was received new, and remains unused at the time of sale may be sufficient documentation of new status for many purchasers.
For aircraft parts distributors, this lack of uniformity creates a potential nightmare: every repair station and every air carrier could have different standards for what they will accept (and many do have divergent standards for acceptance). The FAA recognized this issue, and as a consequence the FAA published recommended guidance for what the FAA believes to be acceptable documentation in FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 00-56A.
AC 00-56A was created by the FAA in partnership with the manufacturing, air carrier, repair station and distribution communities. It provides reasonable standards for documentation: the documentation should identify the part and it should identify the part’s condition.
It does not require documentation that does not add value (and some commercial documentation matrices do seem to seek non-value-added documentation). Remember, AC 00-56A is not the law – it is merely guidance; but it is generally acknowledged as the starting point for any traceability list developed to discern appropriate documentation upon receiving inspection and upon subsequent transfer of an aircraft part.
AC 00-56A is available on the FAA’s website. The documentation matrix from AC 00-56A is also reproduced in the ASA- 100 standard, which is available at www.aviationsuppliers.org.