Chicago Sun-Times


Critics say agency shouldn’t let aircraft makers use their own inspectors.


For more than six decades, the Federal Aviation Administra­tion has relied on employees of airplane manufactur­ers to do government-required safety inspection­s as planes are being designed or assembled.

But critics say the system, dubbed the “designee program,” is too cozy as company employees do work for an agency charged with keeping the skies safe while being paid by an industry that the FAA is regulating.

“There is a potential conflict of interest,” said Todd Curtis, a former Boeing Co. safety engineer and creator of, a website that focuses on airline safety. “They [the FAA] don’t have the money to do all of the oversight. It’s a question of being practical.”

The FAA’s oversight duties are coming under greater scrutiny after deadly crashes involving Boeing 737 Max jets operated by airlines in Ethiopia and Indonesia, killing a total of 346 people. The U.S. was nearly alone in allowing the planes to keep flying until it relented on Wednesday after getting satellite evidence showing the crashes may be linked.

The FAA concedes that it doesn’t have resources to keep up with a growing aviation industry, and experts say it lacks the personnel to inspect every component, especially those made in other countries. But the agency says the designee program’s results speak for themselves. The U.S. has the safest skies in the world. Until April of last year, U.S. passenger airlines had not had a fatality since 2009, while carrying several billion passengers.

But safety experts say it’s time to look into the agency’s relationsh­ip with Boeing, based in Chicago. The FAA’s ties to the company were revealed when Boeing and the agency released similar messages shortly after the Indonesian airliner crashed in October and again this week, when the FAA announced that Boeing would upgrade the Max’s flightcont­rol software, said Mary Schiavo, a former Transporta­tion Department inspector general.

With the messages, the FAA “revealed that they were just parroting what Boeing told them,” she said.

The agency needs more people with technical skills to adequately monitor a company that makes machines as sophistica­ted as today’s jets, she said, contending that it didn’t understand the Max’s flight-control computer program.

“The FAA readily states they don’t understand the 4 million lines of code and the 150 computers,” Schiavo said. “What they do is see that Boeing followed the process, they checked the FAA boxes. The public thinks the FAA has more involvemen­t.”

Indeed, the agency’s own website says that employees of manufactur­ers can approve design changes and aircraft repairs. “Using designees for routine certificat­ion tasks allows the FAA to focus its limited resources on safety critical certificat­ion issues,” it says.

A Boeing spokesman said company employees get regular training and oversight from the FAA.

“The long-standing collaborat­ive engagement between the Federal Aviation Administra­tion, Boeing, its customers and industry partners has created the safest transporta­tion system in the world,” Boeing spokesman Daniel Curran said in an email.

The FAA requiremen­ts in the designee program “ensure that Boeing employees serving in this capacity act independen­tly on behalf of the FAA,” he said.

Congress will examine the relationsh­ip between Boeing and the FAA. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transporta­tion and Infrastruc­ture Committee, said he would hold hearings on the FAA’s process for approving the planes.

 ?? STEPHEN BRASHEAR/GETTY IMAGES ?? The Federal Aviation Administra­tion’s relationsh­ip with Boeing and other airplane manufactur­ers is too cozy, say critics who want a closer look at the agency.
STEPHEN BRASHEAR/GETTY IMAGES The Federal Aviation Administra­tion’s relationsh­ip with Boeing and other airplane manufactur­ers is too cozy, say critics who want a closer look at the agency.

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