The 737 Max is grounded, no thanks to the FAA
A new-model airliner crashes, killing all 189 people aboard. Less than five months later, another airliner of the same new model crashes, killing all 157 aboard. Both seem to have occurred under similar circumstances. The world was understandably terrified, and until March 13, the United States Federal Aviation Administration stood alone as the only major aviation safety agency that had not ordered the grounding of this airline model, Boeing’s 737 Max 8.
President Donald Trump’s executive order on March 13 to ground all Boeing 737 Max 8s was a necessary step. But it is a step that should have been taken directly by the federal agency responsible for aviation safety. That it came from the White House instead speaks to a profound crisis of public confidence in the FAA.
The roots of this crisis can be found in a major change the agency instituted in its regulatory responsibility in 2005. Rather than naming and supervising its own “designated airworthiness representatives,” the agency decided to allow Boeing and other manufacturers who qualified under the revised procedures to select their own employees to certify the safety of their aircraft. In justifying this change, the agency said at the time that it would save the aviation industry about $25 billion from 2006 to 2015. Therefore, the manufacturer is providing safety oversight of itself. This is a worrying move toward industry self-certification.
Before this policy was instituted, the agency selected these airworthiness representatives, who may have worked for the manufacturer but were chosen and supervised by the agency. These experts were responsible for guiding the agency’s decisions about whether to ground an aircraft for safety concerns.
They take that responsibility very seriously, and grounding an aircraft is an extreme step rarely taken. Most accidents today do not result from systematic aircraft flaws that would justify grounding an entire fleet. I recommended grounding an airliner model only once in my seven years as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, following a commuter airliner crash in Indiana.
Since this new “regulatory” scheme took effect, the aviation industry has introduced two new aircraft types, both of which have encountered serious problems. In 2013, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner was grounded because of fires caused by lithium batteries. In that case, the agency quickly recertified the safety of the aircraft, even before the exact cause of the Dreamliner problems had been determined.
And now, we have the troubled flight management systems of the 737 Max 8, which made its first commercial flight in May 2017. In this case, there have been two catastrophic accidents within five months of each other, involving a relatively new model of aircraft. Boeing itself acknowledges that it is developing a revision to its flight management system.
The FAA’s oversight of aircraft safety needs to be examined by Congress, which should act to make sure the agency names independent experts to determine the airworthiness of an aircraft.
The American public should expect no less. The FAA used to lead the world in air safety; today it is bringing up the rear.
James E. Hall, a safety and crisis management consultant, was the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001.