The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) announced findings Tuesday revealing that “numerous Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspectors were not sufficiently trained to certify pilots.” The announcement also explained that “responses by FAA to congressional inquiries regarding these allegations appear to have been misleading in their portrayal of FAA employee training.”
The OSC launched the investigation after a whistleblower “alleged serious deficiencies in ASI [aviation safety inspectors] training and certifcations, which affected their ability to participate in Flight Standardization Boards (FSB),” the OSC explained in a letter sent to President Donald Trump and members of Congress.
The FAA safety inspectors participate in FSB, which is charged with ensuring pilot competency “by developing training and experience requirements.” The inspectors are required to have formal classroom and on-the-job training, according to FAA policy. The OSC explained that the FAA’s independent Office of Audit and Evaluation (AAE) “determined that 16 out of 22 safety inspectors, including those at the Seattle Aircraft Evaluation Group, had not completed formal training.” Safety inspectors assigned to the 737 MAX were among those who had not completed training. Despite these internal findings, the FAA reported to Congress that “all of the flight inspectors who participated in the Boeing 737 MAX Flight Standardization Board certification activities were fully qualified for these activities.”
“This deception is shocking but not surprising,” said Mike Andrews, a Beasley Allen lawyer who focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation and represents families of victims killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. “We have watched a persistent unraveling of our country’s aviation regulatory framework for years and the hands-off approach that led to the 737 MAX tragedies has been accelerated and intensified under the current administration.”
The announcement comes on the heels of a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) story disclosing that Indonesian investigators have determined the 737 MAX design and shortfalls in U.S. oversight of the aircraft development contributed to the Lion Air crash in October 2018. When it is finalized and published, likely in November, the report is expected to be the first formal finding by a government faulting Boeing and the FAA, in part, for the crash.
The report also cites pilot errors and maintenance mistakes as other contributing factors in the first of two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes. It echoes the preliminary report Indonesia released last year as well as the preliminary report released by Ethiopian officials following the second fatal 737 MAX crash, involving an Ethiopian Airlines flight, in March.
Both the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the U.S. agency that investigates air crashes, have received a copy of the draft report for review and comment. Sources told WSJ that the NTSB doesn’t appear to have “major disagreements with the draft.” However, the FAA and Boeing are concerned the final report will “unduly emphasize” the 737 MAX’s design and the “FAA’s certification missteps.”
On Monday, the FAA held a closed-door briefing on the 737 MAX with representatives from 50 countries with airlines that fly the 737 MAX or expect to have incoming flights on the aircraft. A similar meeting in August was cut short when tensions and disagreements among global regulators regarding the recertification of the MAX spilled into public discourse. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was the first to break ranks with a longstanding tradition of following the U.S. and FAA’s lead regarding the safety of aircraft. Patrick Ky, executive director of the EASA, declared that his agency will run its own tests and make an independent determination about the 737 MAX’s safety. EASA and global regulators worldwide are concerned that the same problems that led to the 737 MAX debacle have not been adequately addressed and that the FAA is still too cozy with Boeing, preventing thorough oversight of the recertification process.
Mike is a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. He also has written a book on the subject to assist other aviation lawyers, “Aviation Litigation & Accident Investigation.” The book offers an overview to the practitioner about the complexities of aviation crash investigation and litigation.