The Safety Oversight and Certification Advisory Committee vehemently defended the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its highly criticized Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) aircraft certification process in its final report released last week. The self-regulatory process was bought and paid for with aircraft manufacturers’ lobbying dollars and was used to green-light the fatally flawed Boeing 737 MAX. The process also has been the subject of intense scrutiny by federal lawmakers and aviation regulators worldwide.
The Committee was appointed by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to independently review the process following the second of two deadly crashes involving the MAX that plunged 346 people to their deaths between October 2018 and March 2019. In its report, the Committee explains that it was not charged to investigate the process, rather it was “instructed to review the certification process, evaluate potential enhancements to the system, and make recommendations to bolster aviation safety.”
According to the Committee, the FAA followed its own process, one which the Committee deems “effective.” And, while it didn’t complete a full investigation, the Committee still believed it was justified in rejecting criticisms that the process has an “inherent conflict of interest” – criticisms based on findings from thorough investigations. In denying that such weaknesses exist within the FAA’s process, the Committee, however, did not explain what led to the FAA’s failure in identifying the MAX’s defects nor did it address how Boeing’s deception escaped regulators. Its only recommendations pertaining to the ODA included improving communication between the agency and ODA unit members and working to address “concerns about potential undue pressure on an ODA Unit.”
The Committee noted recommendations in nine additional areas that could improve the system. It recommended the FAA mandate implementing a Safety Management System (SMS) to ensure the seamless “connection and interrelationship” with other SMSs of airlines, airports and service providers. The Committee also recommended a System Safety Assessment (SSA) that will allow the agency to improve guidance and standards for assessing the human factor in certifying “new or novel, complex and/or integrated systems.” Updating the system should include a component for expanding testing and evaluation that includes multiple failure mode scenarios and involve pilots with various levels of training to “reflect the anticipated end-users of the product.”
Additional recommendations, which came closer to addressing underlying systemic problems that factored into the MAX debacle, touched on globalization and personnel issues. Improving and expanding training, data collection, retention and analysis to include a broader set of stakeholders is important for the agency moving forward, especially if it hopes to retain its status as a leader in aviation safety. The agency must also increase personnel to accommodate the growth and complexity of the certification workload and improve personnel management, requiring a more suitable skill set that focuses on empowering and enabling FAA staff “to adapt to a changing work landscape.”
The MAX has been grounded for nearly a year after the second of the two deadly crashes. Currently, members of Congress in both the House and Senate are investigating the factors that led to the tragedies including reviewing the FAA’s certification process. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division are continuing a criminal probe of the certification process as well as Boeing’s questionable actions throughout the process.
Investigations have revealed that Boeing knew and attempted to cover up the cause of the first crash, which involved Lion Air. Further, FAA analysis of the Lion Air crash predicted the aircraft could experience as many as 15 similar catastrophic crashes over its lifetime but still allowed the MAX to remain in service until the second deadly crash occurred five months later, which downed Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. Evidence continues to grow showing Boeing deceived regulators and manipulated the process to get its aircraft approved quickly and with little regard for the safety of the flying public.
Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews has been actively involved in the investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines crash involving the Boeing Max 737. He is representing family members of victims killed in that crash and visited the crash site and surrounding areas several times last year. Mike handles all types of aviation litigation for the firm, involving both civilian and military aircraft.