Industry-led 737 MAX panel defends Boeing, FAA

By Brianna Gurciullo

A DOT panel reviewing two Boeing 737 Max crashes overseas largely exonerated the FAA and Boeing for the way the plane was certified as safe to fly, calling the system “effective” and urging Congress not to “dismantle” it, in a report issued Thursday.

The panel, chartered by DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, strongly defended the FAA program that allows manufacturers to certify large swaths of their own planes with FAA oversight. The report, which was authored by five aviation industry insiders, in some instances quotes previous FAA talking points word-for-word.

Produced in consultation with other pilots, engineers and managers at Boeing, FAA and beyond, the panel urges regulators not to “systematically dismantle” the system, charging that it could jeopardize “the remarkable level of safety that has been attained in recent decades,” according to the report and its executive summary.

Congress has been weighing a legislative response, including whether to rein the delegation program in, or force the FAA to retain more direct control over sensitive certification tasks.
The panel, which was not charged with finding fault but rather collecting information, acknowledged that concerns about the agency’s delegation system have reemerged in the past year, but it rejected the critique that this system allows manufacturers to essentially self-certify planes.

“Critics often refer to delegation as ‘self-certification’ and argue that there is an inherent conflict of interest when employees of the company whose products are being certified are the ones performing some of the certification activities, thereby creating a regulatory blind spot,” the report said. “This interpretation is inaccurate.”

The report then, word-for-word, echoes what the FAA has previously said in statements: “With strict FAA oversight, delegation extends the rigor of the FAA certification process to other recognized professionals, thereby multiplying the technical expertise focused on assuring an aircraft meets FAA standards.”

The report goes on to argue that the delegation system — which has existed in some form for decades — boosts safety, allows the FAA to focus on “the most critical certification areas” and has been expanded by Congress.

It also points out that “direct involvement of the agency’s resources in all areas of domestic approvals and foreign validations would simply be impossible for the number of engineers” in the FAA’s certification office.

“Without delegation or a significant increase in technical resources, the FAA would not be able to keep up with innovation and new designs, and would suppress industry under a regulatory backlog,” the report said.

Still, the panel does suggest that industry and the FAA “work together to address concerns about potential undue pressure” on private employees that perform tasks on behalf of the agency, among other recommendations.

It also calls for the FAA to focus on workforce development and notes that current funding levels may not be sufficient “to support effective resource management.”

Part of the report also looks to knock down the idea that because the MAX was certified as a derivative of an earlier model, so the MAX went through an easier and therefore less rigorous certification process than if had been considered a brand new type of airplane — one area that lawmakers in the House are targeting for potential changes.

The FAA issued the first Boeing 737 type certificate in the 1960s. It has now been amended 13 times, which the panel described as “not unusual” for commercial planes. The panel “asked a wide range of stakeholders” whether the plane would have been more closely scrutinized during the certification process if the plane had instead been certified afresh.

“The answer from the experts was consistent; each said a new [type certificate] would not have produced more rigorous scrutiny of the 737 MAX 8 and would not have produced a safer airplane,” according to the report.

Still, the panel said the FAA should revise the guidance it already has in place to “highlight the vulnerabilities that can develop around multiple adaptations of existing systems, where transfer of historical assumptions may not be appropriate or may require specific validation.”

In other areas, the panel recommended targeted changes, such as reconsidering some decades-old assumptions about the way pilots react in emergencies, aligning with the results of other reviews that have already concluded.

The panel also recommended that the FAA “acknowledge the international profile” of airlines that fly U.S. airplanes and “implement the necessary changes for its aircraft certification system to consider differences in operations, training, and oversight” among countries, a nod to concerns about whether the twin MAX disasters were at least in part due to deficiencies in pilot training.

In a statement, Boeing said it will study the panel’s work “closely, as we continue to work with government and industry stakeholders to enhance the certification process.”