FIRST, THE FEDERAL Aviation Administration in the USA was the target: now it is the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK. Each has been accused of failing to maintain satisfactory oversight of airline maintenance operations. If they cannot satisfy the expectations of the travelling public and their legal representatives, are those expectations too great? If they are, should the expectations be reduced, or the resources available to those authorities increased?

The spotlight fell on the FAA after the recent ValuJet crash; the CAA's turn came in the aftermath of a 1995 incident involving a British Midland Boeing 737, the engines of which ran out of oil after inspection caps were not replaced during routine maintenance. In each case, it was not a failure of the authority to inspect or control maintenance procedures directly which caused the problem, but a failure to ensure that those responsible for the maintenance were controlling themselves.

This calls into question the whole recent trend in regulation, not only of maintenance, but of the entire airworthiness process. When life was simpler, a regulatory-authority inspector could reasonably be expected to be able to track the process of design, manufacture or repair, inspecting at every stage and satisfying himself that all was being done in accordance with the regulations. That is no longer the case.

In the most extreme example, it is now accepted as impossible for a regulatory authority inspector to check the computer calculations which go into the design of an aircraft or engine. At best, the regulators can only review the process by which a computer has been used in that design, and the validity of the raw data which have been manipulated in producing that design.

The same acceptance on trust of the effectiveness of self-regulation has filtered down through the aviation process to embrace maintenance. The maintainer's work is not now inspected as much as the maintainer's procedures in performing that work. The assumption is that the maintainer will always adhere to the agreed procedures, and that this adherence will, de facto, ensure that the work done itself conforms to the agreed standards.

In the case of maintenance, adherence to agreed procedures should be easy to monitor through spot checks. The problem arises in ensuring that the regulator, having adopted the principle of self-regulation by the maintainers under its authority, has sufficient resources to apply even those irregular spot checks.

There has been a parallel pressure to that of increasing self-regulation - that of increasing emphasis on making regulatory authorities more cost-efficient. That pressure by definition militates against increasing inspection resources.

The FAA and CAA are probably the two most capable, independent, respected, experienced and best-funded airworthiness authorities in the world. If they cannot maintain satisfactory levels of oversight, what chance is there for those which the FAA has identified as being incapable of matching its own - apparently deficient - standards?

The answer must partly lie in the pressures being applied - albeit for other reasons - to have the often-conflicting duties of existing regulators divided. The FAA is charged with both advancing the cause of, and regulating, aviation in the USA. The CAA is charged with both providing navigation services to, and regulating, aviation in the UK. An authority which has the duty only of regulating must be more efficient than one with multiple tasks.

The other great opportunity for effectively increasing the resources available to regulation without increasing government funding or user charges must be to advance the process of amalgamation among regulators. In Europe, there is some hope in the increasing influence of the Joint Aviation Authorities - but, so far, it does not have the legal basis to be anything more than a co-ordinator of the activities of national regulators. For the EC to establish a single legal airworthiness representative of all European governments would be a giant step, but it may become a necessary one if there is to be a return to truly meaningful oversight of safety.

Source: Flight International