FAA to use e-signatures in maintenance records

FAA to use e-signatures in maintenance records


The Federal Aviation Administration's Flight Standards Service is preparing an operational bulletin that will allow digital signatures on aircraft maintenance records.

Thomas Penland
FAA's Thomas Penland says his agency's long experience with digital signatures has prepared it for widespread use of electronic records.
The procedures will formalize a decades-long movement toward electronic record-keeping at FAA.

'We've been doing electronic signatures for 30 years, so we've got a little bit of a track record,' said Thomas M. Penland, program manager in the Flight Standards Service's Air Transportation Division. But while electronic record-keeping has been the exception at FAA, it is about to become the rule.

To date, the electronic records largely have been kept outside of the agency. Aircraft companies regulated by the FAA applied for exemptions from agency regulations to use electronic documents and signatures for required records. Fourteen such exemptions have been granted, and several others have been requested.

Eager users

The companies are eager to expand their use of electronic records, and FAA is planning to expand its own use of digital signatures.

The 1998 Government Paperwork Elimination Act requires agencies to accept electronic records in lieu of paper. Last October, FAA published a notice that it was reviewing its exemption policy and considering accepting electronic records as a matter of course.

Companies regulated by the agency are in favor of the move, but they also want guidance, said Vanessa Wilkins of FAA's Office of Rule Making.

The exemption process spelled out what companies were allowed to do. 'If you take away the exemptions, you take away the conditions and limitations,' Wilkins said. 'Companies and FAA inspectors want the rules set out.'

The operational bulletin will give that guidance but won't specify what technology to use.

FAA grants exemptions for electronic records

' Aircraft Braking Systems Corp., for electronic signatures on return-to-service authorizations

' Aviation Component Service Center, for electronic signatures on return-to-service forms

' Chromalloy Gas Turbine Corp., for electronic signatures on airworthiness approval tags

' Empire Airlines Inc., for electronic signatures on airworthiness release forms and aircraft log entries

' Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., for electronic signatures on return-to-service forms

' IBM Corp. Flight Operations, for personal ID numbers in place of signatures on airworthiness release forms

' Northwest Airlines Inc., for electronic signatures on airworthiness release forms and aircraft log entries

' Parker Hannifin Corp., for electronic signatures on airworthiness approval tags

' Texas Aero Engine Services LLC, for personal ID numbers on airworthiness release forms

' United Airlines Inc., for computerized signatures on airworthiness release forms, printed names in place of signatures on computerized load manifests, and digital documentation for manual revisions
Some issues are more semantic than technical. Chromalloy Gas Turbine Corp. of Austin, Texas, which has an exemption for electronic signatures on maintenance records, has applied for permission to make its Inspection Procedures Manual available to personnel electronically. FAA regulations do not specify that manuals must be in paper format, but they do say the manuals must be given to specified personnel.

'If you put it on a centralized database, that is making the manual available, but that is not giving them the manual,' Wilkins said. 'That is where the exemption is needed.'

The new bulletin would explicitly define when electronic availability is enough.

On the technology side, digital signatures are the essential element. FAA for years has used the general term 'electronic signature' to mean anything logically attached to a computer record to authenticate it. It could be as simple as a typed name, if regulators decided that was adequate.

A digital signature, however, is a cryptographic stamp that can both verify the identity of the signer and ensure that the data has not been altered. Properly used, it is more secure than a written signature.

FAA does not specify what kinds of digital signatures companies must use in their record-keeping, but the agency has begun testing its own system for in-house use.

'We're on the tip of the iceberg to open up electronic record-keeping in the agency,' Penland said. 'The key thing that makes it work is digital signatures.'

First attempt failed

About 1,000 people at FAA and in regulated companies have been issued digital certificates from Arinc Inc. of Annapolis, Md., for digital signing.

FAA earlier had paid about $18 each for 1,000 smart cards with digital certificates from the Postal Service. The smart cards worked, but the technology did not take off commercially, Penland said. Neither the cards nor the readers were widely adopted.

'We made a decision that software tokens were adequate,' Penland said.

Arinc, which supplies technology to the aviation industry, acts as registration agent for FAA, verifying the identities of persons receiving the certificates. They arrive on PC diskettes. Each diskette contains a private encryption key. Its unique signatures can be verified using a public key.

FAA plans to put as many as 10,000 digital certificates into use this year, Penland said.


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