There are efforts under way around the country (and around the world, in fact) to redo Part 23, the iconic regulation that addresses the certification of light airplanes. While we’re still years away from a final rule, these first steps are critical to the ultimate success or failure of creating a new regulatory landscape for light aviation. The early reports are encouraging. Members of the rule-making committee tell us that they are looking at every element of the regulation in hopes of achieving a number of as yet loosely articulated goals, including cutting the number of light airplane fatalities in half and halving the cost of certification for the manufacturer. The prospect of new airplanes that cost half what they do today while being twice as safe might sound like a dream, but it’s a dream that many of the committee members share.
One thing is certain. It’s time for a change. It’s not that the rules that govern the certification of light airplanes are broken. They’re not. They’re just aimed at the wrong airplanes.
But how did we get here?
As the rules that oversee certification of light airplanes have evolved over the past several decades, they have more and more focused on the largest and fastest of what the FAA considers by statute light airplanes as regulators attempted to find every potential flaw along the production and operation chain and correct it before it became an accident. The more complex the airplane, the more intense the focus was.
The end result has been a process that is tremendously rigorous and tremendously effective at ensuring that only very high quality airplanes are awarded new certification. And by necessity, the regulations that have emerged are sufficiently complex to take into account all of the intricacies of the largest Part 23 models.
But along the way, regulators seem to have forgotten that, while they were concerned with the myriad details of emergency oxygen at Flight Level 410 on a 12,500-pound jet, the regulations they were promulgating were sweeping up light four-seat singles in their wake. The result is a Part 23 that has become too onerous and expensive for prospective manufacturers of simple airplanes to tackle.
At heart, it’s a definition problem, because it’s only the FAA that considers 12,500-pound airplanes “light” in any way. In many cases Part 23 airplanes bump right up against the 12,500-pound weight limit of the category, and often bulge past it. The 12,500-pound figure, whether it’s an accident of history or a line in the regulatory sand that somebody drew because one had to be drawn, is arbitrary. But we have had to live with it. The result is a certification category that is defined by the biggest airplanes in the category, airplanes that are fundamentally different from the actually light airplanes that many of us fly.
The deck is stacked against real light airplanes. A company that would design and certify a four-seat Part 23 model in today’s regulatory environment had better pencil in a line item for around $100 million dollars. That’s just how much it costs, in part because it’s such a complex process and in part because it takes a long time to complete and requires teams of engineers to pull off. For a start-up airplane maker, that means doing “business” for a number of years, likely seven to 10, before getting to deliver a single product. Just in terms of investment and risk, I can think of better businesses to be in, like any other one. As a result, the stories of light airplane certification programs are almost without exception harrowing affairs, characterized by delays, bankruptcies, relocations and, increasingly, foreign investment.
A company that might succeed in crossing the finish line is left with a mountain of development costs to amortize. With $100 million spent before first delivery, that means that the airplanes the company sells have to cost a lot more than what it takes to make them and work in a little profit. For that hypothetical $100 million program, that means that a company would have to tack on $100,000 in costs to each and every airplane if it sells 1,000 of them — not a likely scenario — and that’s not factoring in the substantial costs the company incurred in borrowing the money to get to first delivery. This is, of course, on top of the costs to produce and support the airplane once it’s in production. No wonder half a million dollars a copy is the new normal in the world of light airplanes.
The costs are so daunting that even Cessna a decade ago abandoned its plans to develop a line of new piston singles and instead bought an existing high-performance model, the Columbia, that somebody else had shepherded through certification and deliveries.