In 2009 the FAA did a survey of Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) manufacturers and determined that while many manufacturers were doing their best to comply with ASTM standards and FAA requirements (see FAA recommendations) a lot of them were still falling short. Most of the short-comings discovered had more to do with understanding or interpretation of the rules.
In the findings released there did not appear to be any safety of flight issues. Also, keep in mind that the industry was only a few years old when this survey was conducted. Everyone, including the FAA (maybe especially the FAA) was playing catch-up. Finally, the survey teams limited their surveys to US manufacturers and the distributors/dealers of foreign manufacturers (they tried to determine factory compliance based on distributor/dealer understanding of ASTM rules and manufacturing procedures -- a flawed approach at best since the ASTM doesn't apply to distributors/dealers and they may or may not know what steps the factory has taken to comply). Based on incomplete data they have extrapolated with "93% confidence" the state of all manufacturers whether surveyed or not.
Now fast forward to 2011. According to Dan Johnson of the Light Aircraft Manufacturer's Association (LAMA) the FAA has recommended that before a manufacturer can get a new model certificated the FAA must first audit the manufacturer and inspect the new model, and this includes manufacturers overseas. FAA designees (DARs) will not be allowed to issue air worthiness certificates to new aircraft models until this audit/inspection is done. And Dan Johnson told Alton K. Marsh that based on his conversation with the FAA the audits/inspections could start this summer. However, it is worth noting that the FAA has not yet notified DARs of this change. I am one of those DARs and other than the conversation between Dan and Alton in April I have not yet heard a word of this via official channels. So maybe this is not a done deal yet.
For those of you new to the sport and don't understand the current certificating rules Light Sport Aircraft are "self-certified." By this I mean the manufacturers self-certify that they have complied with all the certification rules. In contrast other aircraft (excluding experimental aircraft) are certificated by the FAA, which means the FAA has inspected the manufacturer and the aircraft and determined that both the manufacturer and the aircraft comply with all the rules. One of the big cost savers for LSA aircraft was supposed to be the fact that the manufacturers did not have to go through FAA's cumbersome approval process.
On the surface this appears to be a good news, bad news deal. First of all the potential good news. FAA inspections should improve compliance and that, in theory, should improve safety. However, the FAA has not demonstrated that any of the compliance issues they identified in their audits were actually safety issues. I went through their survey (and did very well, thank you), but I couldn't help but notice that they only made a cursory inspection of our aircraft (I had several prepared for their visit). But they spent several hours pouring over paperwork. If the survey team was truly interested in safety wouldn't they have spent more time on the aircraft? Is safety just a paperwork drill? What are we really trying to fix here?
To be honest I have been a little uncomfortable with the self-certification approach; because, I think it is difficult for manufacturers to be completely objective. One of the reasons I like AirBorne products is because the Australian government does not allow them to self-certify until the factory and their aircraft have been inspected by the Australian equivalent of the FAA (this is similar to what the FAA wants to do). That is probably why the FAA was so pleased with the quality of AirBorne's documents and the level of their compliance. So while I don't think the FAA Survey team did that great a job I am not entirely against this proposed change. I do believe that there are companies abusing the self-certification rule and I would like to see them corrected or weeded out. If this is what it takes to do that then I guess I'm okay with it. But that does bring me to the bad news part.
What is the bad news? Cost and a slowdown in SLSA growth and this at a time when the declining dollar and the sour economy is already doing both. The FAA survey team recommended that these inspections be done by FAA personnel (even foreign manufacturer inspections). I don't think tax payers are going to be funding these inspections which means manufacturers will add the cost of the inspections to the price of aircraft. Ouch! Timing is everything and in this economy the timing stinks. This may be the last straw for some companies. Oh well, that's not the FAA's concern.
If this rule change does becomes final one hopes that at least we will get our money's worth and that the inspections will result in better compliance and, by extrapolation, safer aircraft.