Back-to-Birth Traceability is STILL NOT a Legal Requirement

Lately, I have been encountering a number of people who appear to want back-to-birth traceability for articles that traditionally have not required back-to-birth traceability, like expendable articles.  The obvious problem is that when back-to-birth traceability has not been a requirement, it will often not exist for pre-existing articles.  A request for documentation that does not exist, and is not an industry norm, causes frustration for everyone involved.

An installer or other person determining airworthiness needs to have evidence to support that determination.  Evidence!  While back-to-birth traceability is certainly one form of evidence, the form of allowable evidence under current law is much broader than mere “back-to-birth traceability.”

Back-to-birth traceability has been a commercial norm for life-limited parts.  Nonetheless, in 1992, the FAA issued a Chief Counsel’s opinion letter explaining that this commercial norm is NOT an FAA requirement.

Back-to-birth traceability has NOT been a commercial norm for non-life-limited parts, like expendables.  It would be difficult to maintain reliable back-to-birth traceability for non-serialized parts, because of the difficulty in proving that the documents belong to the unserialized articles.

The FAA has repeatedly said that back-to-birth traceability is not an FAA requirement, and that traceability is not an FAA requirement.  The FAA Chief Counsel’s office issued at least three legal opinions between 1992 and 2009 asserting this.  One of the reasons that back-to-birth traceability is not an FAA requirement is because there is no regulation requiring it.  Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, the OMB needs to approve any situation where a person is required to create or maintain records – the OMB will then issue an OB control number to track that activity.  See, e.g., 44 U.S.C. § 3512 (preventing agencies from imposing any penalty for any record-keeping or other information-collection requirement unless the OMB has explicitly approved the requirement and the OMB control number is published with the requirement).  There has never been an OMB control number for back-to-birth traceability.

So if back-to-birth traceability is not a requirement, then what is a requirement?  Typically, our mission as distributors is to preserve evidence to support the ultimate airworthiness decision made by the installer.  The installer has a regulatory need to determine, at the time of installation, that the article will return the product to a condition at least equal to an acceptable/approved configuration (like type certificated configuration or STCed configuration).  E.g. 14 C.F.R. § 43.13(b).  The installer needs to use the right article (so proper identification is important) and needs to know that it is airworthy.  Airworthiness has been described in FAA guidance as (i) the article conforms to its design requirements and (ii) the article is in a condition for safe operation.  E.g. 14 C.F.R. 21.331(a)).  The installer needs evidence to support this conclusion, but the FAA regulations do not limit the forms of evidence that may be used.  FAA Chief Counsel opinions have addressed this and found that one could rely on a variety of different forms of evidence (traceability is just one way to develop the evidence).

Incidentally, when a designee makes a determination about airworthiness of an article the designee uses the same metrics (conforms to design requirements and is in a condition for safe operation).  The designee may then document that finding by issuing an 8130-3. So the same standards that apply to an installer’s determination of airworthiness could also apply to a designee’s determination.

There is a variety of sources of evidence that the industry has traditionally used to support an airworthiness determination. The regulations require Production Approval Holders (PAHs) to assure airworthiness of any articles they release before those articles are released.  Therefore, evidence that the part was released by an FAA PAH is sufficient to show that the part was airworthy at the time of release.  FAA guidance has made it clear that this does not mean back-to-birth traceability – but rather some lesser level of evidence.

FAA AC 20-62E explains, under the heading “PAH’s Documents or Markings,” that “Documents or markings such as shipping tickets and invoices may provide evidence that a part was produced by a manufacturer holding an FAA-approved manufacturing process.”  I have had people ask me about whether one may rely on packaging as evidence that a part came from a PAH. Packaging typically bears the PAH name and/or other marks that reference or represent the PAH. Such marks are protected from misuse under laws like the Lanham Act.  The Lanham Act provides both criminal and civil penalties for counterfeiting or other misuse of a PAH’s name or mark.  Part of the reason that the industry can rely on things like PAH packaging is because the law protects against counterfeiters who might try to spoof that packaging.  For reasons like this, industry generally relies on credible PAH packaging and commercial documentation.

Similarly, I have had people ask “what about counterfeiters who might spoof packaging or paperwork?”  There was famous tale in the 1990s of a counterfeiter who spoofed the Pratt and Whitney logo, but printed the Eagle upside-down.  Ultimately, though, modern technology makes it easy to create bogus paperwork (much easier than creating bogus parts), so insistence on back-to-birth traceability is not a sound strategy for counterfeit avoidance.  Packaging is a little harder to spoof, so it is potentially slightly more reliable than documentation.  But ultimately, we need to rely on our system of laws and industry norms to protect us.  Just as we do not assume everyone on the street is going to murder us, we also cannot assume that every article we receive is counterfeit.  Instead we rely on the convention that packaging and paperwork will be genuine,and that it is safe to rely on them; and then we apply counterfeit avoidance mechanisms to support that convention.  So that is part of why we rely on normal packaging and paperwork  as evidence that the part came from a PAH and was airworthy at the time of release.

Don’t forget that evidence of PAH sourcing – alone – may not be enough to install an article.  Articles can suffer damage or degradation, so the second half of the airworthiness analysis (“in a condition for safe operation”) also applies.  If we know that the article was airworthy in the past, and is unused, then the installer merely needs to assess whether the article has suffered damage or degradation since that release.

Designees and installers have historically relied on things like PAH packaging, PAH shipping tickets, PAH packing lists, etc. as evidence of sourcing from PAHs during their inspections.  The receiving inspection AC (FAA AC 20-154) explains that inspection is “[t]he act of testing or checking a product or part thereof against established standards to assure it conforms to its design requirements and is in a condition for safe operation.”  Note that the goal in that sentence is to assure that the article “conforms to its design requirements and is in a condition for safe operation” – these are the traditional elements of airworthiness.  This section goes on to explain that “Inspection could include documentation review, visual inspections, bench or functional tests, preservation (condition), packaging, technical data, or shelf life limits are a few examples to consider.”  So the FAA has explicitly recognized that checking documents and packaging is a part of the airworthiness check.

It is important to remember that industry’s obligation is to have sufficient evidence to support airworthiness decisions – not to have a ‘magic document’ nor back-to-birth traceability.  Documents from credible sources (like airline commercial documentation asserting identity and condition of the article) can be used as evidence of PAH sourcing, or of other important facts.

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The Electronic Records/Signature Law (ESIGN) turns 18

The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) was signed into law on June 30, 2000.  That makes the law 18 years old on Sunday.  If there was any justice in the world, we’d all be buying the law a cigar and allowing it to vote.

ESIGN established a general rule of validity for electronic records, electronic contracts, and electronic signatures.  Prior to the law, many courts had refused to recognize electronic signatures and they questioned electronic records.

ESIGN applies to transactions “in interstate commerce,” which is a term of art meaning that the transaction is open to being regulated by Congress under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution (most transactions, today, are subject to the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution).  Generally, it explains that when records and agreements are required to be in writing, an electronic version of them counts as a “writing.”

ESIGN also applies to federal and state government agencies.  They are forbidden from adopting record-keeping rules that would “impose unreasonable costs on the acceptance and use of electronic records.”  The law explains that if an agency wants to require paper records (to the exclusion of electronic), then the agency needs to show “there is a compelling governmental interest relating to law enforcement or national security for imposing such requirement.”

Eighteen years after the law was enacted, the aviation industry still struggles with full implementation of the law.  Even though it is clear that aviation records can be recorded and transmitted electronically, the aviation industry remains wedded to paper.  Nowhere is this more clear than with respect to parts documentation.  While distributors are now more comfortable reducing paper 8130-3 tags, and paper material certifications to electronic format for archival storage, transactional records remains stubbornly rooted to a paper paradigm.

One reason for this paper paradigm is because most aircraft parts are unserialized, and therefore it can be difficult to uniquely tie an electronic record to a particular (unserialized) part. A paper record, on the other hand, can be literally, physically, connected to the part to which it applies.  In a world in which we deal with so many different parts coming and going through our warehouses, paper records provide a level of comfort that we are connecting the uniquely correct record to the uniquely correct part.

The FAA has repeatedly said  that commercial documentation paradigms (like back-to-birth traceability) are not required by FAA regulations.  They have specifically stated that there is no Federal Aviation regulation that requires traceability of an aircraft part to its origin, and the FAA does not require back-to-birth records even for life-limited parts.  The FAA has explained that a part may be identified as having been released by a manufacturer as an airworthy part using  “a shipping document, a manufacturer’s certificate of conformance or material certification, or an FAA Airworthiness Approval Tag, Form 8130-3,”  but that in the absence of such documentation, “the part may be submitted for inspection and testing to determine conformity.”

Despite the best efforts of the FAA’s lawyers, the industry remains stubbornly rooted to a paperwork paradigm.  There are many commercial reasons for this, but one important pseudo-regulatory reason is that FAA inspectors frequently insist that the manuals for FAA certificate holders feature documentation requirements.  Once these requirements are published in the manuals, then these FAA-approved manuals drive the documentation requirements which are flowed-down throughout the industry.  And because these documentation requirements are not directly tied to FAA regulations, there is no opportunity to apply the ESIGN mandates and protections to them.

Through recent conversations with both the FAA and EASA, we are starting to see a new understanding of the value of several important paperwork paradigms:

  • limiting documentation ‘requirements’ only to those that are actually valuable to safety;
  • making acceptable safety information more readily available through available (and trusted) industry channels; and
  • permitting greater reliance on electronic information where availability of such data supports safety.

This is likely to be related to the greater reliance of the rest of the world on electronic data (a reliance that was facilitated by ESIGN), but it is also related to the fact that senior decision-makers in the FAA and EASA are more comfortable with electronic records than were their predecessors (again, a comfort that was facilitated by the impact of ESIGN on other parts of the world of data).  And they are also thinking more critically about what information supports safety (and should be encouraged) and what information does not support safety (and therefore becomes unnecessary to the FAA’s mission).

Some FAA DARs Told to Require Back-to-Birth as an 8130-3 Tag Prerequisite?

Several ASA members have contacted us to say that some of the FAA DARs in their area have been told that they cannot issue 8130-3 tags for aircraft parts without full back-to-birth traceability.

One member asked whether this policy is in the Federal Aviation Regulations and also whether the FAA can enforce such a policy. The short answers to those questions are (1) No, this policy is not embodied in the regulations and it contradicts existing FAA policy, and (2) Yes, the local office has the ability (but not the legal right), to nonetheless enforce such a policy.

In 1992, the FAA Chief Counsel’s Office issued a FAA Chief Counsel’s Letter addressing this subject. See FAA Chief Counsel’s Interpretation 1992-36. It explained that the FAA has not imposed any traceability obligation on aircraft parts. It also clarified that this is true for life-limited parts – the only direct regulatory documentation obligation imposed on installers of life-limited parts is a record of current life status, which comes from the operator’s part 91 obligations (the requirement for back-to-birth traceability is a commercial requirement imposed by the industry). See 14 C.F.R. 91.4127(a)(2)(ii).

DARs are currently required to follow FAA Order 8130.21G when they issue 8130-3 tags. This guidance limits 8130-3 tags only to those parts produced under FAA production approval. Thus, DARs should verify that that part was produced under FAA production approval. But it is usually possible to do this without a complete audit trail back to the original manufacturer.  Other FAA guidance makes it clear that you can use markings, or commercial documents like air carrier verifications of source as a means of ascertaining that the part is what it purports to be.

Several of the persons complaining about the new policy have stated that this policy is only enforced in South Florida. 8130-3 guidance is issued by FAA Headquarters in Washington, DC. A local FAA office does not have the legal authority to issue alternative guidance that contradicts national policy and that applies only in that locale and in no other locale.  If a local office does issue such alternative guidance, then this raises a difficult situation for DARs. While we might like to think that DARs can ignore an “illegal order,” the reality is that DARs would do so at their own peril. A local office has the discretion to terminate a DAR’s privileges at will, and if they use a pretext to justify that termination, the Federal Courts have said that the validity of that pretext is not subject to legal review because of the discretion given to the FAA by Congress. See Steenholdt v. FAA, 314 F.3d 633 (D.C. Cir. 2003).  Thus, as a practical matter, if a local office issues alternative policies that contradict national policy, DARs must follow the alternative policy or risk losing their privileges and their livelihood. So even though the local office may not legally change the policy for issuing, an illegal change in policy can be readily implemented through the DAR cadre.

This is a bad time for unusual limits on 8130-3 tags. The President has announced a plan to double US exports over the next five years and ASA has been working with the International Trade Administration to try to help make this a reality through education and opportunity.

The FAA has also signed BASAs that make 8130-3 tags a prerequisite for export.  The BASAs take 8130-3 tags that once were optional and make them requirements in order to engage in export transactions.  Local limits on the issuance of 8130-3 tags that go beyond national policy threaten our trade balance, and also threaten American jobs at a time of already high unemployment.

Because of the FAA’s discretion to terminate a DAR for any reason, DARs are practically unable to fight against bad or illegal policies, even when they are being used as pawns to implement those policies. Therefore, it often falls on trade associations like ASA to address these concerns.

If the rumors are true, then this situation is a very serious one. ASA has asked its affected members to further investigate and find out if the limits on 8130-3 tags have been merely misinterpreted.  Anything that anyone in the industry could provide us, such as FAA training materials, FAA memos, or even FAA emails explaining this new policy, would be very useful in permitting ASA to address this concern with the FAA.

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