Boe­ing crashes re­veal FAA fail­ures

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Michael R. Le­mov

The pub­lic and air­lines around the world have long ac­cepted the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FAA) as the gold stan­dard for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and safety, and Boe­ing as the gold stan­dard for air­plane de­sign.

But ab­sent rad­i­cal changes, nei­ther will be so highly re­garded in the fu­ture given the re­cent Boe­ing 737 Max plane crashes, which killed 348 peo­ple within five months in Ethiopia and In­done­sia.

In my years as gen­eral coun­sel of the Na­tional Com­mis­sion on Prod­uct Safety and chief coun­sel of the House Com­merce Over­sight and In­ves­ti­ga­tions sub­com­mit­tee, I re­viewed many fail­ures of safety reg­u­la­tion as well as some ma­jor suc­cesses. The fail­ures were of­ten tied to the power of big money to in­flu­ence well-in­tended leg­is­la­tion and reg­u­la­tion; the suc­cesses of­ten grew from pub­lic out­rage and coura­geous po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

The cause of the two crashes, while still not fi­nal­ized by in­ves­ti­ga­tors, ap­pears to be a new anti-stall soft­ware sys­tem (the MCAS) used by Boe­ing to al­low its mod­i­fied 737 to use larger en­gines, carry more pas­sen­gers and per­form more eco­nom­i­cally.

The rea­son for the change was com­pe­ti­tion from Eu­ro­pean man­u­fac­turer Air­bus, sell­ing the A320, a new, more ef­fi­cient air­plane. In a rush to meet Air­bus com­pe­ti­tion, Boe­ing and the FAA failed to re­quire ad­e­quate pi­lot sim­u­la­tor train­ing on the new MCAS, the anti-stall soft­ware, and to in­form pi­lots what to do to disen­gage it the event of a sys­tem fail­ure. Two safety de­vices to alert pi­lots to soft­ware prob­lems, a “dis­agree light” and “an­gle of at­tack” gauges, were sold by Boe­ing only as op­tions.

The re­sult was that, even though the new soft­ware was cer­ti­fied for safety by Boe­ing and the FAA, pi­lots were un­able to quickly rec­og­nize and disen­gage mal­func­tion­ing MCAS soft­ware, some­times fran­ti­cally scan­ning Boe­ing man­u­als as their planes plum­meted down­ward. At least half a dozen pi­lots re­ported be­ing caught off guard by re­peated sud­den de­scents by the 737 MAX.

What is the un­der­ly­ing rea­son for th­ese crashes and their likely ad­verse im­pact on Boe­ing and in U.S. safety lead­er­ship?

The FAA states that it does not have enough ex­pert em­ploy­ees or suf­fi­cient bud­get to staff the re­view and test­ing of com­plex new airplanes. Boe­ing lob­bied hard for changes in the law to per­mit del­e­gat­ing much of the safety re­view process to it, and Congress oblig­ingly went along. That turned safety cer­ti­fi­ca­tion into a con­tin­u­ing con­flict of in­ter­est — an ac­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen.

The FAA del­e­gated to Boe­ing the de­sign of the 737 MAX, the amount and na­ture of sim­u­la­tor “hands on train­ing” and the soft­ware in­for­ma­tion given to pi­lots. With the FAA’s ap­proval Boe­ing made key soft­ware safety sys­tems an op­tional pur­chase.

If the now co-opted FAA had man­dated ad­e­quate sim­u­la­tor “hands on” train­ing for pi­lots on the new MACS and its ten­dency to drive the nose of the plane down­ward and if warn­ing op­tions show­ing mal­func­tion of the MCAS had been in­cor­po­rated into the plane and not sold as ex­tras, the two crashes might not have oc­curred.

There are some es­sen­tial ac­tions that should be taken to avoid fu­ture air dis­as­ters like this one.

1. A multi-mem­ber air safety com­mis­sion, with bi-par­ti­san com­mis­sion­ers serv­ing stag­gered terms, would pro­tect safety bet­ter than the FAA’s sin­gle ad­min­is­tra­tor, who is more sub­ject to in­dus­try and po­lit­i­cal pres­sure. The Con­sumer Prod­uct Safety Com­mis­sion is an ex­am­ple of such a multi-mem­ber gov­ern­ment safety struc­ture.

2. A le­gal pro­hi­bi­tion on the “re­volv­ing door” be­tween em­ploy­ment by man­u­fac­tur­ers and the safety agency’s top ap­point­ments is needed, in­clud­ing a pro­hi­bi­tion on top ap­pointees work­ing for a com­pany in the air­craft in­dus­try for a pe­riod of years af­ter serv­ing with the FAA.

3. Del­e­ga­tion by the FAA of ma­jor safety re­view func­tions and over­all cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of air­wor­thi­ness to man­u­fac­tur­ers should be pro­hib­ited.

But no mat­ter how the agency is struc­tured, no mat­ter what pro­hi­bi­tions on the “re­volv­ing door” be­tween in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment are in­cor­po­rated by law, if the agency does not have the funds to hire and re­tain ex­pert en­gi­neers and de­sign­ers, it most cer­tainly can­not fully pro­tect the pub­lic.

Tak­ing steps to im­prove our air safety sys­tem will not be easy. Congress alone can leg­is­late the changes. But only the Amer­i­can peo­ple, at the polls, can en­sure that they elect of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent and Congress, who are com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing pub­lic safety.

Michael R. Le­mov ([email protected] com) is an at­tor­ney who served in the 1970s as gen­eral coun­sel of the Na­tional Com­mis­sion on Prod­uct Safety and chief Coun­sel for the House Com­merce Com­mit­tee’s Sub­com­mit­tee on Over­sight and In­ves­ti­ga­tions.


Res­cuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Air­lines Boe­ing 737 MAX crash near Bishoftu, Ethiopia last month.

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