In today’s world we are all accustomed to finding just about anything we need (and many things we don’t) online using a few keystrokes on our computers. It is truly a global community connected by the ubiquitous yet invisible internet. For aviation, especially general aviation, that means the internet gives us access to mountains of information and documentation to help make our operations safer, and that is a good thing. Not so long ago, we did not have access to up-to-date versions of those documents. We were aware of the FAA’s regulations (found in Parts 1 to 199 of Title 14 of the CFR) and various Advisory Circulars (ACs) and Handbooks but had access to that information only through published hard copies. Recall the extra step Certified Flight Instructors (CFIs) took to make certain that we used the latest published volume of a rule or the Airman’s Information Manual (AIM) when instructing students? But rules and ACs get updated throughout the year and often the latest published version of the AIM did not actually contain the latest version of a rule (the next time you see a hard copy of an AIM look in the front at the disclaimer to see the publication cutoff date).
When I joined the FAA’s Counsel’s Office in the early 1990s I found the issue of making sure I used the latest version of a rule, AC, Handbook, or internal FAA Order even more acute. In addition to their regular duties, our administrative assistants would spend large amounts of their time inserting “change pages” to update documents in our library. Recognizing the problem, the FAA started an effort to utilize the growing availability of the internet to give its employees electronic access to materials needed for their duties. Initially, the Regulatory and Guidance Library, or RGL, grew from a project within the Aircraft Certification Service to give FAA engineers access to rules, ACs, Orders, Type Certificate Data Sheets (TCDSs), etc. The Flight Standards Service also started a project to gather all of its guidance to Aviation Safety Inspectors (ASIs) into one document, the present FAA Order 8900.1, and to make it available only in electronic form so as to better control changes. Through early February of 2022, FAA Order 8900.1 has been changed 776 times since its original publication and each page of the Order contains an admonition that once you download that page it may no longer be up to date as any changes are made only to the master electronic version. That system is better known to us as FSIMS (Flight Standards Information Management System). FSIMS also includes Flight Standards Bulletins, MMELs (Master Minimum Equipment Lists), Policy Statements, etc. FSIMS also contains direct links to the RGL and is not just available to FAA employees, but to all of us via public internet portals.
Introducing the FAA’s Dynamic Regulatory System or DRS. It’s no surprise that the FAA would one day try to improve upon the separate RGL and FSIMS. Since the Aircraft Certification Service and the Flight Standards Service both fall within the purview of the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety or AVS, the new and improved system for electronic access grows from an AVS effort. If you have accessed the RGL or FSIMS lately you have seen references and links to the DRS. There is a notice on FSIMS that sometime this summer (2022) FSIMS will be decommissioned. Even now, there are already parts of the RGL that are accessible only through the DRS. So, what is the DRS and how does it differ from either the RGL or FSIMS, and what does it mean for GA?
The DRS appears to contain everything that both the RGL and FSIMS contained but goes beyond those two systems. The DRS also contains a lot of older material going back to the Civil Aeronautics Manuals and documents that provide interesting historical background on the current documents for a particular subject. That can be helpful for an historian or law student, but I question its usefulness for an ASI today who really should concentrate on what the regulations provide now and not try to glean some regulatory intent from previous versions of the rule or AC. There are also numerous notices that the collection of materials may not include if those documents that do not directly pertain to AVS functions. There are lots of Air Traffic Orders, for example, that general aviation (GA) may want to know about and to which access is important that are not on the DRS. Also, DRS does not at present appear to contain any documents from the FAA Medical Office, even though that office is also within AVS. But DRS is better at helping you find the right document for your issue as the search functions appear to be more dynamic than the search functions of either the RGL or the FSIMS.
The DRS, however, contains a disclaimer that I find both annoying and not at all helpful to bolster the credibility of the FAA. The FAA boldly states, “The documents contained in DRS are for reference only. The FAA assumes no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of this information.” I ran into this issue when Aircraft Certification first developed the RGL. I counseled Aircraft Certification then, and the FAA now if it's listening, that the FAA cannot hide behind a disclaimer if it wants to credibly give access to documents via the internet. The FAA must own what it posts and keep those posts current. Imagine a GA pilot using the DRS to find the answer to an issue with that pilot’s aircraft only to discover later in an enforcement action against the pilot’s certificate that the FAA will not stand by what it posted in the DRS?
Electronic access to FAA documents that affect GA makes us all safer by providing up to date information without having to rely on printed copies. Time will tell how users (both within the FAA and outside the agency) will view the new DRS. I believe that, on balance, it is an improvement to the RGL and FSIMS systems, but it will take some time to get used to the new system, as with all new systems introduced to replace older, more familiar ones. I would like to see the FAA grow DRS to include AVS and then, eventually, all of the FAA. For now, use the new system, get used to it, and give the FAA feedback.
Currently, Of Counsel to the firm of Paul A. Lange, LLC, Mr. Chris Poreda served as the FAA’s New England Regional Counsel from 2002 to 2015. A graduate of the US Air Force Academy in 1974, he flew F-4 Phantoms for the US Air Force in Europe and at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, NV before serving as a Flight Instructor for the Air Force. After leaving the Air Force, he earned a law degree from Northeastern University and clerked for the Massachusetts Appeals Court before working as an associate for Bingham, Dana & Gould in Boston until joining the FAA’s legal office in 1990. Attorney Poreda served as a staff attorney for the FAA and as the counsel to the Engine and Propeller Directorate at the FAA’s New England Region before assuming a management role for the FAA’s legal office in 2002. He retired from Federal service in 2015 after 37 years with the US Air Force and the FAA. He has taught Aviation Law to law students at New England Law, Boston, and undergraduates at Southern New Hampshire University. He remains an active Flight Instructor in the Boston area.