"I've got their LOA application right here. I'm giving it a final cut."
What we used to call the FARS — the Federal Aviation Regulations — are more properly called Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, 14 CFR for short. If you are a non-commercial operator, chances are your primary guidance comes from 14 CFR 91, though it could also be 14 CFR 125 if you are flying an airplane with 20 or more seats or you have a maximum payload capacity of 6,000 pounds or more. You probably have a pretty good understanding of 14 CFR 91 or 14 CFR 125 if they apply to you.
Commercial operators have other regulations that also apply to them, such as 14 CFR 121 or 14 CFR 135. These regulations cannot cover everything they do so they have additional guidance contained in Operations Specifications, OpSpecs, that are tailored to their individual operations. Some fractional ownership operators have their own regulation, 14 CFR 91K, and another type of guidance found in Management Specifications, MSpecs.
So where does that leave the pure general aviation operator? If you are covered primarily by 14 CFR 91 or 14 CFR 125M, then you need to know about Letters of Authorization (LOAs). You don't need an LOA to fly an airplane, but you will probably need an LOA to fly in certain airspace, use certain technology, or do something above and beyond what is covered by your particular part of 14 CFR.
Getting an LOA from the FAA can be incredibly easy or nearly impossible, depending on your relationship with your Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). A Principal Inspector (PI) once told me that there are 82 independently owned and operated FSDOs within the FAA. As much as the FAA tells you they are standardized across the country, they are not. I've heard examples of companies getting RNP 4 LOAs without the necessary equipment, and others with everything they need put on hold for a year.
There is no easy crash course called LOAs 101. You can fly your entire career without an LOA but the minute you step up to a higher performance jet, you really can't survive without them. Here then is a quick and dirty run down:
Most of this comes from the relevant regulatory documents, listed below, as well as my comments in blue.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §3., ¶3-736] This section and sections 4, 5, and 6 of Volume 3, Chapter 18 discuss each standard template available for issuance by the automated Operations Safety System (OPSS), also known as the Web‑based Operations Safety System (WebOPSS). These templates are more commonly referred to as "paragraphs."
Much of FAA Order 8900.1 centers around OpSpecs but it is helpful to think of them as OpSpecs and LOAs when trying to figure out why they are needed . . .
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §1., ¶3-676] The early U.S. Civil Air Regulations (CAR) did not provide for OpSpecs. A valid certificate or temporary permit was the principal federal authorization for conducting any air commerce operations. In addition to the certificate or permit, each operator had to possess valid competency letters, or temporary letters, issued by the Secretary of Commerce. These letters, which contained information relating to the operator's services, routes, aircraft, maintenance, airmen, and weather procedures, were appended to and considered part of the operating certificate. For example, CAR part 61.01 required each air carrier to operate in compliance with the terms, conditions, specifications, limitations, or other provisions of its certificate or temporary permit which included the competency or temporary letters. In 1953, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) revised the CARs to require that each operator apply for OpSpecs at the time of application for an air carrier certificate. Air carriers that existed at that time were issued OpSpecs to be used instead of the competency or temporary letters. These revised rules specified that the OpSpecs were not part of an air carrier certificate.
Before OpSpecs commercial operators needed authorizations but there wasn't a standardized way of ensuring the authorizations were valid, current, or even applicable.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §1., ¶3-678] Within the air transportation industry there is a need to establish and administer safety standards to accommodate many variables. These variables include: a wide range of aircraft, varied operator capabilities, the various situations requiring different types of air transportation, and the continual, rapid changes in aviation technology. It is impractical to address these variables through the promulgation of safety regulations for each and every type of air transport situation and the varying degrees of operator capabilities. Also, it is impractical to address the rapidly changing aviation technology and environment through the regulatory process. Safety regulations would be extremely complex and unwieldy if all possible variations and situations were addressed by regulation. Instead, the safety standards established by regulation should usually have a broad application that allows varying acceptable methods of compliance. The OpSpecs provide an effective method for establishing safety standards that address a wide range of variables. In addition, OpSpecs can be adapted to a specific certificate holder or operator's class and size of aircraft and type and kinds of operations. OpSpecs can be tailored to suit an individual certificate holder or operator's needs. Only those authorizations, limitations, standards, and procedures that are applicable to a certificate holder or operator need to be included.
We need operator-specific authorizations, OpSpecs, MSpecs, or LOAs, to tailor broad regulations to individual aircraft types, operators, locations, and other unique situations. It is impractical to modify regulations to adapt to advances in technology and other changes, and it would be difficult to do this in a timely manner. In theory, an OpSpec, MSpec, or LOA can meet all these needs.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, §1.1] This order directs the activities of aviation safety inspectors (ASI) responsible for the certification, technical administration, and surveillance of air carriers, certain other air operators conducting operations in accordance with the appropriate part of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR), certificated airmen, and other aviation activities. This order also provides direction for tasks related to aircraft accidents and incidents, investigations and compliance, the aviation safety program, administrative areas, and miscellaneous tasks not related to a specific regulation. In addition, it contains regional and district office requirements for the support of ASIs responsible for those activities.
FAA Order 8900.1 replaces many older FAA orders but acknowledges there are still many regulatory publications that may contradict it and that we will just have to be patient until they sort it all out. Some LOA's that have never had Advisory Circular guidance have made their way to FAA Order 8900.1, so things are improving. When starting research into an LOA topic, FAA Order 8900.1 should always be consulted.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §1, ¶3-676] This chapter contains direction and guidance for issuance of operations specifications (OpSpecs) to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 121, 125, 129, 133, 135, and 145 certificate holders. For part 142 certificate holders "training specifications" policy guidance is located in Volume 3. Direction and guidance is also included for amending, canceling, suspending, or revoking the OpSpecs for parts 121, 125, 145, and 135 certificate holders. Information on the processing of part 129 foreign air carrier operations specifications is contained in Chapter 2 of Volume 12. The policy and guidance for part 91 Subpart K, Fractional Owners, Management Specifications (MSpecs), is integrated with the OpSpecs guidance. General guidance for the issuance of other automated authorizations from the Operations Safety System (OPSS) is contained in section 2 of this chapter. The OPSS also contains automated authorizations for part 91 operations (Letters of Authorization (LOA) and Letters of Deviation Authority (LODA)), part 141 Pilot Schools (Training Specifications), and part 137 templates used for documenting required information.
Much of FAA Order 8900.1 deals with OpSpecs but a careful reading reveals that many of the OpSpecs requirements for commercial operators also exist for non-commercial operators as LOAs. As noted, if you are looking for LOA guidance, you will often have to turn to FAA Order 8900.1, Chapter 18, Section 2.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §2, ¶3-701] The automated Operations Safety System (OPSS) Web-based Operations Safety System (WebOPSS) consists of standard and nonstandard templates for operations specifications (OpSpecs) management specifications (MSpecs) and letters of authorization (LOA) developed by Washington headquarters (HQ). MSpecs are issued to program managers that conduct fractional ownership operations under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 91 subpart K (part 91K). (Paragraphs 3-712 and 3-714 discuss nonstandard OpSpec and MSpec authorizations.) LOAs are used to issue certain authorizations to part 91, 125M, 133, and 137 operators. All standard OpSpec/MSpec and LOA templates, and any subsequent revisions are first coordinated within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and then with appropriate industry organizations. After this coordination, the standard template authorizations are incorporated into WebOPSS, which is programmed to provide only those OpSpecs/MSpecs/LOA and other templates such as training specifications (TSpecs) that are applicable to a particular type of operation under a particular 14 CFR part. When the appropriate standard templates have been selected and all the required information has been entered into WebOPSS, a complete set of OpSpecs/MSpecs/LOAs can be issued to a particular certificate holder, operator, or program manager, based on type of operation.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §2, ¶3-701.C.2] An OpSpec/MSpec/LOA job aid is designed to provide a variety of up-to-date information regarding individual templates. These job aids contain miscellaneous information, references for the authorization, and a sample of the associated template. The job aid may change with the addition or correction of information. The date of the last job aid revision is indicated on the title line of the document. Other directives or guidance documents may include job aid information.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §2, ¶3-704.C] These OpSpec/MSpec templates and LOA templates are divided into the following six parts.
These are mostly administrative in nature, such as listing who the responsible person is. They are covered in greater detail by FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §3.
These are typically airspace LOAs, such a P-RNAV, B-RNAV, RNP, MNPS, and RVSM. They are covered in greater detail by FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §4.
These are instrument approach related, such as VNAV to a DA/DH. They are covered in greater detail by FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §5.
These are maintenance related, such as authorization to use an MEL. They are covered in greater detail by FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §6.
They are covered in greater detail by FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 18, §7.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 1, §3.1.D.] The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) principal inspector (PI) will provide status reports at certain milestones to applicants for operational approvals (operations specifications (OpSpec), training specifications (TSpec), management specifications (MSpec), letters of authorization (LOA), and Special Areas of Operations (SAO)). At a minimum, the PI shall provide a status report to the applicant:
FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3 outlines a very tidy process that almost never happens. The bureaucracy can be very slow in accepting your application and assigning a PI. It can be months before a PI even sees your application and once he or she does, it can be a few more months before your application rises to the top of the PI's inbox.
[FAA Order 8900.1, Vol. 3, Ch. 2, §3-55.A.] The FSDO with a service area covering the operator's primary business address holds responsibility for issuing, updating, and overseeing part 91 LOAs for that operator. The operator provides this address when applying for the LOA. FSDOs should not process LOA requests received from an operator with an address not within the FSDO service area, except when the aircraft is already associated with a certificate holder, the part 91 operator may apply to the certificate-holding district office (CHDO).
Step One of the real world LOA process is to establish a relationship with your FSDO and introduce yourself to the Principle Inspector (PI) who will be handling your flight operation. Some PI's are more approachable than others and you may be lucky enough to have one who will walk you through the entire process. If you are not so lucky, here is an example of how a startup operation went from zero to getting its first LOA. If you are starting with nothing, applying for an RVSM LOA is a good place to begin.
A letter of authorization to conduct operations within airspace designated as Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) airspace is designated as B046. The process for getting this LOA depends on the airplane's qualification, the operator, maintenance particulars, and pilot qualification. While your steps could be different, here is what we did to make this work.
It often helps to remember that many of the web pages from a large organization are designed by different people or over a long span of time, so things are laid out the way you think they should be. So you will have to dig around.
Since we were a new company without any prior authorizations, our FSDO told me I would have to come in for a "desktop interview," which was going to be an oral exam of sorts. I agreed and told them I would be available at any time. After a month with no results, our company called an influential person in the Department of Transportation to complain. The next call I got from the FSDO was asking me to pick up the LOA.
Advisory Circular 91-85, Authorization of Aircraft and Operators for Flight in Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum Airspace, 8/21/09, U.S. Department of Transportation
FAA Order 8900.1 (Available at FAA FSIMS)