A federal audit of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s flawed certification process for the Boeing 737 Max confirms how the transfer of its oversight authority to the very aircraft manufacturer the agency is charged with regulating directly contributed in the deaths of 346 passengers and crew.
Much of the U.S. Transportation Department inspector general’s audit detailing how the 737 Max 8 was certified focuses on the agency’s glaring lack of oversight. The regulatory failure stems in large measure from a 2005 decision to delegate oversight authority to Boeing under a misguided and ultimately deadly policy known as “Organization Designation Authorization,” or ODA—otherwise known as self-regulation.
The government audit identified “limitations in FAA’s guidance and processes that impacted certification and led to a significant misunderstanding of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), the flight control software identified as contributing to the two accidents.”
FAA created the ODA program ostensibly to standardize its oversight of aircraft manufacturers deemed qualified to perform certain functions on the agency’s behalf, including determining compliance with aircraft certification regulations. Those designated gained the power to select and oversee employees performing oversight functions delegated to them by the FAA.
The unrelenting push for airline deregulation, undue pressure by Boeing that ultimately led to certification of a new and faulty airframe configuration and lack of FAA resources were most often cited as rationales for the ODA program.
In due course, passenger safety was compromised.
Abdication of FAA’s oversight responsibility proved fatal by allowing Boeing to portray the 737 Max and its single-point-of failure MCAS system as mere modifications to an existing airframe, thereby avoiding a lengthy and expensive re-certification process.
As the federal audit notes, “FAA’s certification guidance does not adequately address integrating new technologies into existing aircraft models.” It continues, “FAA did not have a complete understanding of Boeing’s safety assessments performed on MCAS until after the first accident.”
It’s clear the agency did not appreciate the implications of MCAS and other airframe problems in the period between the two 737 Max crashes. The failure to ground the new aircraft in the five months between the Lion Air crash in October 2018 and the Ethiopian Airlines disaster in March 2019 is among the greatest regulatory failures in the history of commercial aviation.
Since then, Boeing has experienced a series of problems with its 777 aircraft, including an engine fire over Colorado and an emergency landing in Moscow of a Boeing 777 operated by Rossiya Airlines. Both incidents involved Pratt & Whitney engines; investigators are focusing on metal fatigue in fan blades.
The federal audit’s conclusions regarding the Boeing 737 Max provide little reason to believe the FAA’s deeply flawed certification process for new aircraft technologies like MCAS will be fixed anytime soon.
“While the agency has taken steps to develop a risk-based oversight model and address concerns of undue pressure at the Boeing ODA, it is not clear that FAA’s current oversight structure and processes can effectively identify future high-risk safety concerns at the ODA.”
Nevertheless, the Transportation Department audit recommends only revising the flawed ODA process rather than abolishing it and restoring the FAA’s vital oversight and certification functions.
Ultimately, fuel savings, longer range and reduced operational costs appear to outweigh safety considerations: Having again received the FAA’s stamp of approval late last year, 25 new Boeing 737 Max aircraft were ordered this week by United Airlines.