BlueSky Business Aviation News
Regulating change Terry Drinkard

or the sake of conversation, let’s all agree for the moment that the rate of innovation in aviation, particularly business aviation, is lower than we would like it to be. If we can agree on that, then the next subject of interest is how do we improve the speed of innovation in
our chosen industry?

Without even delving into the exact nature of what sorts of innovations we want, who we think should make them, and how they might be paid for, we can discuss the larger issues of process, stake-holding, and the obvious and inescapable conclusions. Some things are true no matter the direction you approach the issue.

Regulators are stakeholders in the process. In the case of an accident attributable to some kind of failure with a new design or a new technology, the regulators catch a lot of the blame. “Why didn’t you think of this kind of failure mode?” Or the even less helpful, but emotionally laden, “The regulators are in bed with industry!” With the proliferation of social media and diminishment of the more traditional corporate media filters, we can expect the criticisms to be broader, and possibly even less well informed.

The fundamental conflict of regulation

Regulatory authorities are responsible for certifying a new design as safe to fly. That is a huge responsibility. Regulators are sometimes responsible for the economic well being of the industry, too. Some people see this as a conflict of interest, a natural curb on their desire for unfettered domination. These sorts of folks would be happy regulating the industry out of existence and then blaming someone else for the obvious and predictable result. I disagree.

Human beings never do anything for only one reason. Our brains are neural networks and have to have multiple inputs to balance the circuit. It is helpful if some of those inputs are opposed to and act as natural limits on other inputs. Without those oppositional forces, we risk running amok, destroying ourselves and those around us.

Oppositional forces in regulation

It is the same for regulators. Without oppositional forces, they have a tendency to regulate more and more heavily. After all, in general, regulators get rewarded for regulating. This is the natural way of things. To balance the regulators’ natural desire to implement more and more regulation and thereby achieve some level of personal success, we need a countervailing mission, in this case, the maintenance of the economic well being of the industry. There is a natural sweet spot between excessive regulation and rampant permissiveness that allows for maximum growth of the industry without imperiling our ultimate customers, the passengers. Regulators have a tough job striking a good balance, and that is probably how it should be.

Why no?

As things stand, regulators are not rewarded for the introduction of a new design or a new technology. They do not stand to gain personally from a successful industry. I am not saying they should; I am pointing out a fact. Regulators have no incentive to seek out new technologies, produce new designs, and boldly go where no man has gone before. That is not how it works. In fact, their natural tendency must be to say no to innovation.

As the gatekeepers to commercial success, and by that I mean are they are the arbiters of who gets a type certificate and who doesn’t, regulators have a role to play. Any reasonable analysis would show that a regulator has to be predisposed against the introduction of new innovations. To be otherwise would be to abandon the entire principle of regulation as it exists today. Rampant permissiveness would be disastrous. The answer must be no until industry can prove that it is safe. That is just good sense.

Is there a better role for regulators?

That said, we should look carefully at the role of regulators in the process of innovative technical development and see if there are ways we can improve things.

My thought is that we in industry might well prosper from a more active participation in the technical development process by the various regulators. Imagine working on a design-build team, or a research and development team, with a regulator who is knowledgeable about the regulatory process, the intent of the regulations, and has the authority (or reports to someone with the authority) to implement perfectly reasonable, but untried methods of demonstrating that a new innovation is safe to produce and fly--which is the whole point of regulation in a nutshell.

A future vision

How powerful would it be to for us to be able to talk directly to the people who are themselves directly responsible for this part of the regulatory process during the development cycle? Are there any 777 veterans out there? Remember the unprecedented power of the design build teams? Remember how that whole “working together” thing turned out? I was there for the roll-out. That first airplane was incredible. No airplane in the history of The Boeing Company, nor any other company that I know of, came down the production line with so few problems. I have worked other programs, including the 787, and I can tell you from intimate personal experience that the 777 was the best program ever. Why? Because people from every technical and non-technical discipline participated actively in design decisions. We did not find out halfway down the line that it wasn’t actually possible to build this part or that the vendor couldn’t get the right tooling. Those issues were worked hard beforehand. Imagine being able to handle the regulatory issues in the same manner that design and supply chain issues are handled and at the same time.

Now, back it up a stage, and imagine that we are in that same design build team environment or the R&D environment, but now we have regulators on-board with us. The question comes up, “How can we show this good?” Or, “Is this a reasonable approach?” Imagine getting useful answers in real time from someone who is intimately familiar with the actual problem and the potential solutions and is the person who will be signing for it. Imagine having a partner in the innovation process who can see the pitfalls of the new design from the regulatory perspective and help find ways around it, or show that running in that direction is simply a waste of time and money. How powerful is that?

The current reality

That sounds very cool, I know. However, there is no regulatory agency in the world today who has either the staff or the technical knowledge to participate at that level. In fact, the current trend is quite the opposite. Companies are now expected to pretty much validate their own designs and their own work. That’s what the Organizational Delegation Authorization (ODA) program is all about. In essence, the FAA delegates its regulatory authority to those it ostensibly regulates, largely because the FAA does not have the resources to oversee everything everywhere, and even if they did, they don’t have the technical expertise of the manufacturers. This is not new. The Designated Engineering Representative (DER) program has been around for decades and serves the same purpose for the same reasons. But there are limits here simply because the manufacturer is not the same as the regulator, no matter what the paper says. They are motivated differently and answer to different people.

Are we going the right direction?

Still, I have to ask the question, “Is this the right direction?” Would we be better off as an industry if our regulators actually understood what we do and why we do it? If we believe that regulation brings something of value to the table during the research and design processes, then yes, I believe we would be better off as an industry if our regulators were more technical and more abundant. (I can hear the screams already.)

Functional equivalence

Yes, I know all about those who would be horrified to increase yet another government agency and the implied levels of taxation that would require. Well, think about this. The functions have to be performed. Either industry pays someone on the inside to perform the function or they pay someone on the outside to perform the function. The only way to slide past this is to not perform the function, which is regulatory oversight of the design and production processes. That, in my view, is totally unacceptable. In my view, deregulation of various industries here in the US has been little short of disastrous.

Getting it

So, we are left with the only difference being whose signature is on that person’s paycheck. Whether it comes through the government system or through the corporate system, the money is the same. What we are trading off is the ability of our regulator to understand what we do and why we do it the way we do. Working with an informed, technically capable regulator is worth the extra effort because that regulator can make a positive, valuable contribution to the process of innovation by shortening design cycles and helping us sidestep regulatory problems early on. This has value.

Terry Drinkard is a Contract Structural Engineer based in Jacksonville, Florida whose interests and desire are being involved in cool developments around airplanes and in the aviation industry. He has held senior positions with Boeing and Gulfstream Aerospace and has years of experience at MROs designing structural repairs. Terry’s areas of specialty are aircraft design, development, manufacturing, maintenance, and modification; lean manufacturing; Six-sigma; worker-directed teams; project management; organization development and start-ups. 

Terry welcomes your comments, questions or feedback. You may contact him via

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©BlueSky Business Aviation News |10th February 2011 | Issue #112
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