The 737 Max is grounded, no thanks to the FAA

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY JAMES E. HALL New York Times

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.

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