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Airmotive Engineering Corp. v. Federal Aviation Administration

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

February 23, 2018

Airmotive Engineering Corporation and Engine Components International, Inc., Petitioners
Federal Aviation Administration, Respondent

          Argued December 4, 2017

         On Petition for Review of an Order of the Federal Aviation Administration

          Laura G. Ferguson argued the cause for petitioners. With her on the brief was Andrew D. Herman.

          Laura Myron, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Charles W. Scarborough, Attorney, and Paul M. Geier, Assistant General Counsel for Litigation, U.S. Department of Transportation.

          Before: Henderson and Rogers, Circuit Judges, and Sentelle, Senior Circuit Judge.



         A manufacturer of replacement aircraft parts petitions for review of an "airworthiness directive" issued by the Federal Aviation Administration that mandates removal of some of its engine cylinder assemblies. The manufacturer challenges the application of a risk management methodology and whether there was substantial evidence in the record to support the conclusion that the cylinders presented an "unsafe condition" under agency regulations. It also contends that a failure to analyze the risks associated with replacement itself undermined reasoned decisionmaking. It seeks a remand for a new risk assessment of the cylinder assemblies. For the following reasons, we deny the petition for review.


         In support of the mandate to "promote safe flight of civil aircraft, " the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") promulgates safety standards for aircraft and component parts. 49 U.S.C. § 44701 et seq. To produce replacement parts for aircraft engines, a manufacturer is required to obtain a "parts manufacturer approval" ("PMA"), 14 C.F.R. § 21.301-.320, that the part "conforms to its approved design and is in a condition for safe operation, " id. § 21.1(b)(1). Once a replacement part is in production, the FAA, upon determining that the part has an "unsafe condition" that "is likely to exist or develop in other products of the same type design, " may issue an "airworthiness directive." Id. § 39.5. The FAA treats airworthiness directives, which are published in the Federal Register, id. § 39.13, as "legally enforceable rules, " id. § 39.3, that can require inspections, impose conditions and limitations, and require actions to resolve an unsafe condition, id. § 39.11. The term "unsafe condition" is not defined by statute or FAA regulation.

         Airmotive Engineering Corporation and Engine Components International, Inc. (collectively, "Airmotive") manufacture and market PMA-certified replacement "cylinder assemblies" used in piston engines installed in small single- or twin-engine aircraft. The head of a cylinder assembly is joined to the barrel by heating the head and screwing it onto the threaded barrel to create an "interference fit." National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB"), Safety Rec. to Act. FAA Adm'r, at 1 (Feb. 24, 2012).

         In August 2013, the FAA published a notice of proposed rulemaking for an airworthiness directive regarding the "unsafe condition" created by Airmotive cylinder assemblies with part number AEC631397 and serial numbers 1 to 61, 176 (hereinafter "AEC63"). Continental Motors, Inc. Reciprocating Engines ("CMRE"), 78 Fed. Reg. 48, 828, 48, 830 (Aug. 12, 2013) ("NPRM"). This followed the FAA's receipt of failure reports of multiple cylinder head-to-barrel separations and cracked and leaking aluminum cylinder heads, and recommendations from the NTSB and FAA maintenance inspectors. The proposed directive would require initial and repetitive inspections, replacement of cracked cylinders, and replacement after reduced times-in-service. It would prohibit future installation of AEC63 cylinder assemblies. Id. Public comments were mostly negative. The FAA proceeded to add certain technical documents to the rulemaking record, extend the public comment period, and appoint an "independent, multidisciplinary team" of agency experts. The team concluded an "unsafe condition" existed and an airworthiness directive was required, but recommended making compliance less aggressive and less costly with revised compliance and removal schedules. In January 2015, the FAA published a revised proposal adopting the recommendations and reopened the comment period. See CMRE, 80 Fed. Reg. 1008 (Jan. 8, 2015) ("Supp. NPRM"). After the FAA placed additional technical documents in the record and provided responses to public comments, it again reopened the comment period. See CMRE, 80 Fed. Reg. 52, 212 (Aug. 28, 2015) ("Second Supp. NPRM").

         The FAA promulgated the airworthiness directive a year later. See CMRE, 81 Fed. Reg. 52, 975 (Aug. 11, 2016) ("Final Rule"). In further response to public comments, the FAA explained the basis for its conclusion that AEC63 cylinder assemblies presented an "unsafe condition." In the FAA's judgment, "[t]he impact of a cylinder failure separation in flight is an unacceptable compromise to safety." Id. at 52, 980. Record evidence indicated that AEC63 cylinder assemblies fail at a rate "at least 32 times greater" than those of the original manufacturer. Id. at 52, 979. The FAA attributed the "root cause" of this high failure rate "to two inherent design deficiencies": "Insufficient dome transition radius and insufficient head-to-barrel interference fit." Id. at 52, 980. Record evidence further indicated that "in-flight cylinder head separation is an unsafe condition that presents multiple secondary effects, " including in-flight fire and loss of aircraft control. Id. at 52, 979. Accident data confirmed that separated cylinders have also been a precipitating event in fatal accidents. Id. The directive required phased removal of AEC63 assemblies and prohibited their future installation. Id. at 52, 991. Airmotive petitions for review of the Final Rule, see 49 U.S.C. § 46110(a), seeking a remand for a new risk assessment of the cylinder assemblies.


         Under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), the court must uphold agency action unless it is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A). "The scope of review . . . is narrow and a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the agency, " provided the agency has "examine[d] the relevant data and articulate[d] a satisfactory explanation for its action including a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made." Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see Clark Cty., Nev. v. FAA, 522 F.3d 437, 441 (D.C. Cir. 2008). The FAA's findings of fact "are conclusive" when "supported by substantial evidence, " 49 U.S.C. § 46110(c), namely, "evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, " Schoenbohm v. FCC, 204 F.3d 243, 246 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). When ...

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