SEATTLE — The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday said it plans changes to how new airplane models are certified, but will preserve Boeing’s central role in that process — despite criticism that Boeing mistakes in certifying the 737 MAX allowed design flaws that killed 346 people in two crashes.
In a report released Tuesday, the FAA responded to recommendations made in January by an advisory committee set up by U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who oversees the FAA.
In a statement, the FAA said those recommendations confirmed that its existing safety protocols are “sound,” though there are “areas where we have opportunities to improve.”
Drawing on the lessons taken from the MAX crashes, the agency said, it will give more scrutiny to potential pilot errors associated with the increased automation of airliner flight controls. And it will try to ensure a more complete review of how the multiple systems in a jet may interact to provide a broader review of safety risks.
The January report, which unlike other investigations into the MAX crashes explicitly vindicated the FAA’s current procedures, was received skeptically at the time, and the FAA’s response Tuesday was likewise greeted with caution.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranking member of the Senate Transportation committee, said the FAA response “falls short” in fixing the shortcomings of the current system. That system delegates to Boeing itself much of the work of certifying its own planes and, said Cantwell, fails to hold the aircraft manufacturer fully accountable.
She said Congress will have to “address shortfalls and problems that exist in the FAA’s current oversight authority.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Committee on Transportation, said he’ll study the FAA report but added that “we already know the FAA’s certification process is in need of a major overhaul.”
He promised to introduce legislation “to make sure that the failures in the system that led to the death of 346 people never happen again.”
In January, both DeFazio and Cantwell, as well as family members of those who died in the accidents, had criticized the advisory committee’s recommendations, saying it was defending the FAA’s current system of aircraft certification while playing down shortcomings that missed the flaws in the MAX flight control system that led to the two crashes.
That report recommended that the FAA should continue to delegate to Boeing most of the detailed work of the certification process, and described this system as “rigorous” and “robust” while allowing “U.S. industry and innovation to thrive.”
In Tuesday’s response, the FAA welcomed this “endorsement of delegation as an effective and efficient method to enhance safety.”
However, the advisory group’s report had also detailed parts of the process that need tightening, including concerns highlighted in several Seattle Times stories last year.
For example, Boeing engineers working to certify the MAX on behalf of the FAA faced “undue pressure” from their managers to limit safety analysis and testing so the company could meet its schedule and keep down costs.
According to an employee with knowledge of the internal policy, Boeing required an engineer concerned about a manager’s “undue pressure” to file a complaint first with someone up the chain of command within the same organization — who, based on the same cost or schedule considerations that were on the manager’s mind, might be similarly motivated to ignore the complaint.
And on the FAA side of the process, the FAA engineers working on MAX certification came under constant pressure from their managers to delegate more and more work to Boeing.
The two sets of safety engineers at Boeing and the FAA were actively discouraged from talking directly to one another to hash out technical details, with those communications left to their respective managers.
In response, the FAA said Tuesday it will work to educate Boeing managers about the need to avoid exerting “undue pressure” on engineers overseeing the certification work.
(The recommendations refer only generally to any airplane manufacturer applying to certify any new plane. However, the report explicitly discusses the MAX crashes, so it’s very clear Boeing and its certification processes are the main subject of the report.)
The FAA said it will also clarify what sort of technical details those Boeing engineers are required to communicate directly to their counterparts at the FAA.
The new FAA report also addresses another issue arising from the 737 MAX crash in Indonesia in 2018, and the one less than five months later in Ethiopia.
On both flights, the pilots were overwhelmed by the crew alerts from all the automated systems and were overcome by a new flight control system on the jet — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — that repeatedly pushed down each plane’s nose after being activated by a single faulty sensor.
The FAA said it will examine the assumptions made about pilot responses in emergencies and “explore ways to improve safety assessments and assessments of human-machine interaction.”
And the FAA said it will consider the capabilities of flight crews outside the U.S. when it looks at cockpit design and pilot training.
It also said it will introduce a more holistic assessment of how multiple automated systems might interact to confuse the crew.
“This includes validating assumptions made in the system safety assessments and review of flight crew recognition in single and multiple failure scenarios,” the FAA states in its report.
Another criticism of the certification system after the MAX crashes was that the FAA allowed the airplane to be approved as a derivative of the original 737, certified 50 years earlier, rather than certifying the jet as an entirely new model.
That meant only changes from the immediately prior 737 model had to be examined during certification, rather than ensuring that every structure and system on the airplane met all the latest airworthiness safety standards.
Chao’s advisory committee concluded that if the MAX had been certified as an all-new model of the jet, it “would not have produced more rigorous scrutiny … and would not have produced a safer airplane.”
The FAA welcomed that finding and noted that “application of new airworthiness standards, in some circumstances, can increase costs.” The current system for certifying a derivative airplane like the MAX, “balances these economic and safety outcomes,” the FAA report states.
However, the FAA said it will reconvene an international team with the aim of closing any gaps related to how cumulative changes over multiple iterations of an aircraft’s design could create unnoticed risk.
This team will propose changes to assess “how design changes to one system may affect other unchanged systems,” the FAA said.
In a statement, Boeing said “we are reviewing these actions closely and remain committed to working with government and industry stakeholders to enhance safety and the certification process.”
A former top FAA official, who asked not to be identified to protect his current role as a consultant on aviation safety matters, said the overall FAA response looks like “more of the same” — a determination to maintain its decades-long progression of doing less and less hands-on oversight and delegating more of that work to Boeing.
He pointed to the FAA’s future vision, outlined in 2017, of expanding the current delegation system further, an agency “transformation” that would see it set safety regulations in place but then leave it almost entirely to the manufacturer to find that its aircraft is in compliance.
In the new report, the former official said, “I don’t see anything suggesting that FAA will reverse its determination to continue to disengage from certification.”
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