With the FAA’s adoption of Part 23 reform, a whole new era in general aviation development begins. What does it mean to us as consumers and to the industry?
How Does It Work?
The new system will work like a more regulated form of what the Light Sport Aircraft regs introduced a decade ago. The regs are just for small planes, which the rewrite classifies using the accepted cutoff of 12,500 pounds. That’s the somewhat arbitrary, but long-accepted weight divide between light aircraft, which are covered under Part 23 and Part 25 Transport Category aircraft (there’s a middle ground, too, the hybrid Commuter Category for planes heavier than 12,500 pounds, but with 19 seats or fewer). Most of the planes we think of as owner-flown (or potentially so) aircraft fit the Part 23 segment.
The way that the new Part 23 will address type certification is similar to the way in which the Light Sport Category tackled the subject a decade ago, relying on industry consensus standards for manufacturers to develop instead of the FAA’s set-in-stone certification bars over which airplanes as diverse as Aviat Huskys and Embraer Phenom 300s must hurdle. Does that make sense? No, but it’s the way it’s always been done, which is part of the reason why new-manufacture small airplanes are so darned expensive. By using consensus standards, the manufacturers could work together to develop standards that make sense for both 100-knot airplanes and 400-knot ones.
How Much Cheaper Will The New Part 23 Be?
For starters, let’s look at LSA for answers. The hope was that well-equipped, good-performing two-seaters would emerge that would offer their owners a total package for well less than $100,000. (Many would-be LSA owners said they were looking for just this kind of plane for more like $50,000). So let’s suffice to say that consumers will want a four-seat, 135-knot, gas-piston, fixed-gear plane with a good useful load for less than $100,000. Sounds fair, but is it realistic? The probable effect, as was the case with LSA, is that current prices and hoped-for prices will meet about halfway. So the current $250,000-$400,000 entry-level single (I know, ouch) will likely come down in price to $150,000-$300,000. There are also a lot of open questions about how the new rules will affect the price of current aircraft. The chances are good that those models, which have already gone through the certification process, will be unaffected, which is bad for consumers, but understandable from the manufacturers’ point of view.
Perhaps the two biggest factors that have historically driven costs up and kept them up are liability costs and third-party components costs. The new Part 23 will, unfortunately, do nothing new to keep liability costs down. Juries will continue to be the bane of manufacturers’ existence. The cost of engines, wheels and brakes, avionics and cables and windscreens and the like will, likewise, be largely unaffected by the new Part 23. So the $50,000 engine in a Skyhawk will remain $50,000, and there’s little that Cessna can do about it (though that might be a bad example, as both companies are Textron Aviation subsidiaries).
Will These New Planes Fly As well As Existing Part 23 Models?
The answer to this is, we’ll have to wait and see. The LSA has been a mixed bag in a couple of ways. The targets that the FAA set for the segment were ill conceived and had unintended consequences. The low stall speed was intended to keep these planes safe in an off-airport landing, but the result was that many of them are really hard to land in gusty winds, so much that even experienced pilots have a hard time transitioning from conventional GA birds. In fact, pilots of higher-performing airplanes have an even harder time making the jump, because the feather-light wing loading of LSAs is so different from the much higher loading of, say, Bonanzas and Mooneys. If the stall speed had been even marginally higher, the landing characteristics of many of these LSA would have been less touchy and more tolerant of a little wind. So poorly thought out are the LSA standards that even Cessna, maker of great flying airplanes for eight decades, failed in its attempt to make a decent LSA.
So, with the new Part 23, as long as the FAA continues to allow the targets it always has before, a 61-knot stall speed in landing configuration, how manufacturers get there is beside the point.
Will They Be Built As Well?
Who knows. And here’s why: Because many Part 23 models are, if anything, overbuilt, the question might be better phrased as, “Will the new breed of Part 23 airplanes have a sufficiently high-quality build?” The answer to that, unfortunately, is “we’ll have to wait and see.” The idea that FAA regulations are merely in the way of manufacturers building great, cheap and miraculously fast and long-legged new airplanes is silly. The fundamental reasons for most of the FAA’s rules for how an airplane needs to be built make a lot of sense. What doesn’t make much sense is how needlessly complicated the FAA makes it for manufacturers to comply with the rules. Paperwork is the order of the day when it comes to certifying airplanes, and manufacturers set aside rooms just to store and keep track of the thousands of volumes of documentation in support of their FAA compliance. The mission should be defined like this: How does the FAA ensure that manufacturers build strong, airworthy, robust and reliable planes, each one identical in flying qualities to the one that came before it? Instead, it has become this: How does the FAA ensure that aircraft manufacturers have documented to death the processes they use in order to build these great planes? By relying on industry consensus standards for certification, the paperwork, while not going away, might cease being the driving effort in certification.
Will Innovation Be More Achievable?
We certainly hope so! One of the shortcomings of the FAA’s certification system is that it punishes instead of rewarding innovation. When I was flying with friends from Garmin back in the mid-1990s when the company was certifying the first IFR-approved GPS panel-mount units, I would occasionally ask about a clunky feature (I can be a pain like that). I remember the answer I got on more than one occasion was something like, “Yeah, we agree, but the FAA made us do it that way.” Why? Because the agency had never certified an IFR-approved GPS navigator before and its employees, protecting their jobs, required features that didn’t make sense, and that made the units harder to understand and harder to use. This they did because the features were already being used on other existing certificated, though in many ways dissimilar navigation systems. Garmin’s biggest foe in developing the best user interface possible wasn’t a lack of imagination. It was the FAA certification process. This I know for a fact. All you need to do is look at how much better the user interfaces were on Garmin’s early non-certificated handheld GPS Map 195 compared to the UX on the panel-mount GPS-155 TSO IFR receiver.
The same has been true for innovators in the airplane-making business, too. This was true for Cirrus in certifying its SR20 and SR22 singles, not to mention its Vision Jet, and for Diamond with its long-winged easy-flying DA20 and DA40, but especially with its diesel-powered DA42 and DA62 twins. Should the FAA pay special attention to new-technology powerplants? Absolutely. In single-engine airplanes, the lack of redundancy is part of the name of the segment. At the same time, the FAA has long needed to develop ways to incorporate new ideas into its certification scheme, because if it’s never been done before, like the first composite airplanes or the first diesel engines, or the first whole-aircraft recovery parachute system, or the first flat-panel LCD display, then the agency has to figure it out, which, even if it can pull that feat off, is an incredibly time-consuming and expensive process not for the FAA but for manufacturers, which makes planes more expensive for us consumers.
So, yes, innovation and lower cost are a real possibility in this brave new world of consensus standards for Part 23 airplanes, and if all goes well, they’ll fly just as well and be built just as robustly as the old models were.
And given the remarkable level of creativity and innovative spirit in aviation—there are thousands of examples of this everywhere we look—even given the innovation-unfriendly environment of the old FAA regs, I’m optimistic that things really could change for the better.