The Savvy Aviator #16: Who Is Responsible For What?

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Who is responsible for the various aspects of maintaining an aircraft in airworthy condition? The aircraft owner, the authorized inspector (IA), and the certificated mechanic (A&P) all have well-defined roles and responsibilities. AVweb's Mike Busch lays them out in this months Savvy Aviator column.

The Savvy Aviator

My last column (The Annual Inspection Trap) triggered some fascinating responses from several readers who are career A&P/IAs.

One such reader -- who oversees a GA maintenance facility -- chastised me severely for my assertion that FAR 43.11 calls for an IA who is asked to sign off an annual inspection with discrepancies to document those discrepancies in the form of a separate signed-and-dated list to be presented to the owner, rather than recording the discrepancies in the aircraft's permanent maintenance logbooks.

"You are wrong," this IA wrote me in an email. "There is no rule that says I cannot put the discrepancies list in writing in the logbook. I teach all A&Ps and IAs I know always to put the discrepancies in the logbook and give the dated list to the owner. Too many owners want illegal and shoddy maintenance. So if I write in the logbook that your Baron's elevator skins are corroded from the inside out, the next entry should not say that some hack mechanic simply cleaned and repainted skins."

"I will concede," I replied to the IA, "that FAR 43.11 does not explicitly prohibit a mechanic from writing discrepancies in the maintenance logbook (nor does it prohibit writing poetry there), but it's the clear intent of the regs that this not be done. FAR 91.417 explicitly permits the owner to destroy a 43.11 discrepancy list once the discrepancies have been resolved and the aircraft approved for return to service. Writing the discrepancy list in the logbooks makes it very hard for the owner to do this, so I maintain that it's bad form for an IA to write discrepancies in the logbooks, and a disservice to his customer."

Dirty Laundry

I asked the IA to consider two identical aircraft owned by two equally conscientious owners: Aircraft A has an annual inspection performed at Shop A, and the owner has Shop A correct all airworthiness discrepancies and sign off the annual as airworthy. Aircraft B has an annual inspection performed at Shop A, but the owner decides to have Shop A sign off the annual with discrepancies and to have those discrepancies corrected by Shop B. Both aircraft are now equally airworthy, and neither owner is trying to hide anything. Why should the owner of Aircraft B be penalized by having "dirty laundry" (discrepancies) in his aircraft's logbooks (for some future buyer to fret over), while the owner of Aircraft A winds up with "clean" (discrepancy-free) logbooks?

"I will disagree with you on this 'till the death," the IA wrote back to me. "What you are advocating is terribly wrong on grounds of safety. You are advocating hiding unairworthy items found at the annual, and some misguided owners want it that way. Your are not only wrong, but you may be dead wrong due to the unprofessional practices that the unairworthy annual discrepancy list getting thrown away by the owner, and not being verified as corrected in the logbook. These practices you advocate will get you or the next owner in some dire straits. Why do you think so many prepurchase aircraft evaluations go so badly? You know and I know that there are some terrible aircraft owners, and very unprofessional A&P mechanics out there in General Aviation."

The IA went on at some length to illustrate his concerns about an annual being signed off with discrepancies. "Suppose I sign off an annual with a number of serious airworthiness discrepancies, and give a signed and dated list of those discrepancies to the owner. Say the owner then takes his aircraft to another shop and asks the unwitting mechanic to replace a tire. When that mechanic signs off the logbook after the tire change, it will look as if this cleared the entire list discrepancies (when in fact the owner never showed the discrepancy list to the mechanic). So the mechanic is unwittingly approving the aircraft for return to service when the work done by the mechanic may have nothing to do with the discrepancies found during the annual inspection."

What A Logbook Signoff Means

I can certainly appreciate this IA's concerns, given his working assumption that the aircraft owner is a "bad apple" who may try to weasel out of repairing the aircraft that the IA has determined to be unairworthy. But let's examine this scenario more closely.

When the mechanic signs off the logbook after the tire change, is he in fact unwittingly approving the aircraft for return to service (despite the list of uncorrected discrepancies that the bad-apple owner hasn't told him about)? No, he isn't. FAR 43.9 makes it clear that the scope of the mechanic's signoff is strictly limited to the tire change he performed:

14 CFR 43.9(a)(4): If the work performed on the aircraft, airframe, aircraft engine, propeller, appliance, or component part has been performed satisfactorily, [the entry in the maintenance record shall contain] the signature, certificate number, and kind of certificate held by the person approving the work. The signature constitutes the approval for return to service only for the work performed. [My emphasis.]

By contrast, when an IA signs off an annual inspection as airworthy and approves the aircraft for return to service, his signature signifies that he inspected the aircraft in its entirety and found it airworthy in every respect. (It is often said that the IA "signs his life away" every time he signs off an annual, and there's a lot of truth to that.)

If, on the other hand, the IA signs off the annual with discrepancies (and does not approve the aircraft for return to service), then once he hands a signed and dated discrepancy list to the owner, the IA's job is done. (A wise IA will keep a copy of the signed and dated discrepancy list so he can prove he did his job should that ever be called into question.)

Is the IA responsible for ensuring that the discrepancies are corrected before further flight? No, he isn't. Is the next mechanic who works on the aircraft responsible for doing that? No, he isn't, either. That responsibility clearly belongs to the aircraft owner:

14 CFR 91.403(a): The owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition, including compliance with part 39 of this chapter [Airworthiness Directives].

What if our bad-apple owner goes ahead and flies the aircraft without correcting the discrepancies? The owner is then in violation of the regulations for operating an aircraft with a known airworthiness deficiency:

14 CFR 91.7(a): No person may operate a civil aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition.

Who is responsible for making sure that the aircraft owner gets the discrepancies corrected before flying the aircraft? Technically, such oversight is the FAA's job. In the real world, however, the FAA is unlikely to get involved unless the owner winds up having an accident or incident that attracts FAA attention. (A wag might say that oversight responsibility over aircraft owners is the joint responsibility of the FAA and Charles Darwin.)

Who's Responsible For What?

I guess what bothered me about my correspondence with this IA was his underlying assumption that the IA's role is to ensure that every aircraft he inspects is made airworthy before it flies again. That's not the IA's role according to the regulations. The IA's proper role is to inspect the aircraft, to judge its airworthiness, and render a verdict to the owner. That verdict may take either of two forms: a determination that the aircraft is airworthy and approved for return to service, or a determination that the aircraft is unairworthy and a signed/dated list of discrepancies presented to the owner. Once the verdict has been rendered, the IA's job is done and it becomes the owner's job to get any discrepancies corrected before further flight.

In my seminars, I often use the analogy of building a house to clarify the respective roles and responsibilities of the aircraft owner, the authorized inspector (IA), and the certificated mechanic (A&P):

  • The aircraft owner is like the general contractor, who has overall responsibility for the outcome of the project, and who contracts with various specialists to accomplish the necessary work.

  • The A&P is like the licensed electrician, plumber or roofer who possesses the special knowledge, skills, tools and regulatory approval to perform work that the general contractor contracts to be done.

  • The IA is like the licensed building inspector whose job it is to determine whether the structure meets all applicable regulatory requirements and is safe to occupy. If the inspection uncovers deficiencies, the inspector documents them in a report and submits it to the general contractor. The general contractor is then responsible for getting the deficiencies corrected.

Mechanics as "Airworthiness Police"

Another IA who owns a General Aviation maintenance facility wrote to take issue with my statement, "A mechanic has no authority to ground an aircraft, or to force an owner to perform any maintenance that the owner does not wish to have performed."

"True," conceded the IA, "However, most FSDOs will take the mechanic's opinion and ground an aircraft if the mechanic asks for it. I have done this in the past in cases where a safety-of-flight item was involved."

The same IA also took issue with my recommendation that if an owner finds himself in disagreement with an IA over what needs to be done to correct a particular discrepancy, the owner would be wise to seek an expert second opinion before deciding how to proceed.

"As a businessman and owner of a shop, I have a duty to my customers to get the plane done and out at a reasonable cost in a shortest amount of time. Giving the owner several days to ponder a question screws up my shop schedule all to hell. I can't have a plane in the shop for days all apart, storing it while an owner takes his time making a decision. I will give the owner time to make a decision, but it will not be more than a business day."

Whoa! Call me crazy, but I've got a real problem with this sort of attitude coming from an IA and a maintenance shop owner. If you were building a house, how would you feel if your electrician refused to let you take the time to research what sort of lighting fixtures you wanted, or your building inspector threatened to call the cops if you didn't do things exactly his way? I don't know about you, but I'd sure try to find a different electrician and a different inspector.

It's obvious that some IAs consider themselves to be "the safety police" and believe that they must do "whatever it takes" to stop an aircraft owner from "doing something dumb." My personal take on this is that such inspectors do a disservice to the system, much like a judge who tries to do the lawyer's job for him. As a longtime aircraft owner, I would certainly try my best to steer clear such "police-mentality" IAs and give my annual inspection business to those who treat their aircraft owners as customers and teammates rather than as suspects or bad guys.

Each of us -- owner, mechanic, IA, FAA inspector -- has his proper role under the regulations. The owner has primary responsibility for the airworthiness of his aircraft. The A&P's job is to perform maintenance at the behest of the owner. The IA's job is to evaluate the aircraft's airworthiness on an annual basis (or following a major repair or major alteration) and to report his findings to the owner.

The job of overseeing the owner and ensuring that he complies with his regulatory responsibility belongs to the FAA. From where I sit, an IA who tries to do this job is acting as a vigilante, and is not helping the cause of safety regardless of how well-intentioned he may be.

Discrepancy Lists, Revisited

Prompted by my exchange of correspondence on the subject of discrepancy lists and bad-apple owners, I had a vigorous discussion with some mechanic friends that helped to clarify the issue a bit for me. I think we arrived at an approach that should work for everyone concerned.

To address the "next mechanic problem," I suggest that when an owner has an annual signed off with discrepancies and then takes the aircraft to another shop or A&P to have the discrepancies corrected, the owner should specifically ask the mechanic who approves the work to include an explicit statement at the end of his logbook entry that says "This resolves all discrepancies and airworthiness items identified during the annual inspection dated mm/dd/yyyy."

Once the discrepancies have been corrected and the aircraft approved for return to service, FAR 91.417 says that an owner may legally destroy a discrepancy list. Nevertheless, one can argue that destroying the discrepancy list (albeit legal) puts the IA who performs the next annual at something of a disadvantage. Consequently, I suggest that when an owner opts to have an annual inspection signed off with discrepancies, the owner would probably be smart to preserve the signed/dated discrepancy list at least until the next annual inspection, and to make the discrepancy list available to the inspecting IA along with the permanent aircraft maintenance records.

Once the next annual is complete, the prior annual becomes completely moot, so the owner may then feel free to destroy the discrepancy list from the prior annual -- or file it somewhere other than with the aircraft's permanent maintenance records.

Following these guidelines should ensure that the aircraft winds up with clean and unambiguous maintenance records that leave no doubt in anyone's mind that the owner properly discharged his responsibilities to maintain the aircraft in airworthy condition.

Of course, the IA who signs off an annual with discrepancies should still retain his own copy of the discrepancy list to protect himself from potential liability in the event that the owner fails to do the right thing.

See you next month.


Want to read more from Mike Busch? Check out the rest of his Savvy Aviator columns.