NTSB Makes Service Bulletins Mandatory?
A recently decided enforcement case involving an FAA-certified mechanic and service-bulletin compliance may drastically increase operator costs and call into question airworthiness of thousands of in-service aircraft. A decision in the case, Administrator v. Law, was adopted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on April 28, 2006. The NTSB is the federal agency responsible for adjudicating FAA enforcement actions. The case involves a mechanic who returned to service a Lycoming piston engine without ensuring compliance with all applicable service bulletins. No airworthiness directive (AD) mandated service-bulletin compliance and FAA regulations do not require service bulletins to be performed on certificated products like aircraft and engines unless the product is used in commercial operations, like under Part 135 or 121. Yet, the NTSB upheld the FAA's enforcement action. In its decision, the NTSB determined that language in the Lycoming engine overhaul manual incorporated by reference not just existing service bulletins, but future ones, too. That language states, "In addition to this manual and subsequent revisions, additional overhaul and repair information is published in the form of service bulletins and service instructions. The information contained in these service bulletins and service instructions is an integral part of, and is to be used in conjunction with, the information contained in this overhaul manual." According to aviation attorney Gregory J. Reigel, the decision possibly alters fundamental understandings on which maintenance technicians and aircraft operators have relied for decades. Wrote Reigel, "This NTSB opinion may well take some of the discretion out of the decision-making regarding whether or not to comply with a service bulletin." Additionally, according to the NTSB, whether service bulletins are mandatory for Part 91, non-commercial operations depends upon what other manufacturer-written materials may contain. According to Reigel, there is no precedent, legal or otherwise, for the NTSB's decision in this case.