‘Fox guard­ing the hen­house’ men­tal­ity

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS -

BOE­ING •fromA1

day-to-day reg­u­la­tory work to Boe­ing al­lows the FAA to fo­cus its lim­ited re­sources on the most crit­i­cal safety work, taps into ex­ist­ing in­dus­try tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise at a time when air­lin­ers are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­plex, and al­lows Boe­ing in par­tic­u­lar to bring out new planes faster at a time of in­tense global com­pe­ti­tion with its Euro­pean ri­val Air­bus.

But over the years, gov­ern­ment watch­dogs and unions have raised flags, warn­ings that are get­ting re­newed at­ten­tion in light of the two Boe­ing crashes.

It is not clear what role Boe­ing em­ploy­ees played in vet­ting the au­to­mated flight-con­trol sys­tem, known as MCAS, that ap­pears to have played a cen­tral role in the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Oc­to­ber, and may have played a role in the crash of Ethiopian Air­lines Flight 302 this month as well. The Seat­tle Times re­ported last week that a safety anal­y­sis for MCAS was del­e­gated to Boe­ing, and that the com­pany pro­duced a doc­u­ment that had sig­nif­i­cant flaws.

Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao has re­quested that her depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral con­duct an au­dit of how the 737 Max 8, the model in­volved in both deadly crashes, was cer­ti­fied. Law­mak­ers have asked the in­spec­tor gen­eral to ex­am­ine the role that the del­e­ga­tion pro­gram played in the Max’s cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. And the Jus­tice Depart­ment is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the plane’s de­vel­op­ment, a per­son briefed on the in­quiry said.

Un­der the del­e­ga­tion pro­gram, “the staff re­spon­si­ble for reg­u­lat­ing air­craft safety are an­swer­able to the man­u­fac­tur­ers who profit from cut­ting cor­ners, not the Amer­i­can peo­ple who may be put at risk,” Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal, D-Conn., wrote to the in­spec­tor gen­eral last week.

In tes­ti­mony pre­pared for the Se­nate hear­ing on Wed­nes­day, the FAA’s act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor, Daniel K. El­well, de­scribed the sys­tem of del­e­gat­ing au­thor­ity out­side his agency as “crit­i­cal to the suc­cess and ef­fec­tive­ness of the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process.”

“This is not self-cer­ti­fi­ca­tion; the FAA re­tains strict over­sight au­thor­ity,” El­well said in the pre­pared re­marks.

In the case of the 737 Max, El­well said that the FAA was “di­rectly in­volved” in re­view­ing the safety of MCAS. The agency’s en­gi­neers and flight test pi­lots par­tic­i­pated in eval­u­at­ing the sys­tem, he said, call­ing the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process for the plane “de­tailed and thor­ough.”

In draft tes­ti­mony for the Se­nate hear­ing, the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, Calvin L. Scovel III, said the FAA was re­vamp­ing how it su­per­vised man­u­fac­tur­ers that per­formed work on its be­half. He said the FAA planned by July “to in­tro­duce a new process that rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant change in its over­sight ap­proach.”

The prac­tice of del­e­gat­ing au­thor­ity from reg­u­la­tors to plane mak­ers stretches back decades. For the Boe­ing 747400, ap­proved in 1989 as an up­date to the iconic jumbo jet, the FAA es­ti­mated that it had del­e­gated 95 per­cent of the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion work, ac­cord­ing to a 1993 re­port from the agency now known as the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice.

The re­port raised con­cerns that the FAA had turned over re­spon­si­bil­ity for crit­i­cal work, in­clud­ing “analy­ses of hy­po­thet­i­cal fail­ures of sys­tems.”

The FAA over­hauled its ap­proach to del­e­ga­tion in 2005, cre­at­ing a new pro­gram that ex­panded the au­thor­ity given to man­u­fac­tur­ers to help cer­tify their own prod­ucts. Un­der the new pro­gram, called Or­ga­ni­za­tion Des­ig­na­tion Au­tho­riza­tion, com­pa­nies like Boe­ing can choose their own em­ploy­ees to work on be­half of the FAA.

When the FAA moved to cre­ate the pro­gram, Boe­ing called it “an im­por­tant build­ing block to­ward in­creased del­e­ga­tion through­out the avi­a­tion in­dus­try.”

But not ev­ery­one in avi­a­tion cir­cles shared that pos­i­tive view. The Na­tional Air Traf­fic Con­trollers As­so­ci­a­tion, whose mem­bers in­clude FAA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion em­ploy­ees, said at the time that the FAA’s new ap­proach “pro­vides less spe­cific and tech­ni­cal FAA over­sight and there­fore would in time lower the safety of the fly­ing pub­lic.”

An­other FAA union now known as the Pro­fes­sional Avi­a­tion Safety Spe­cial­ists said it would op­pose “any sys­tem that al­lows in­dus­try to self-reg­u­late over­sight via the honor sys­tem.” The union wrote that the FAA’s “bla­tant out­sourc­ing” was “reck­less” and would “ac­tu­ally com­pro­mise pub­lic air safety, not en­hance it.”

The FAA was “rush­ing to hand off their over­sight re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to in­dus­try and vir­tu­ally es­tab­lish­ing a ‘fox guard­ing the hen­house’ men­tal­ity,” the union wrote.

The del­e­ga­tion pro­gram has come un­der scru­tiny on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions since then.

One fac­tor in the de­bate is the FAA’s bud­get. If Congress wanted the gov­ern­ment to han­dle more cer­ti­fi­ca­tion work with­out slow­ing down the ap­proval of new planes, law­mak­ers would most likely need to dras­ti­cally in­crease fund­ing for the FAA so it could ex­pand its staff. In­stead, Congress has en­cour­aged the FAA to del­e­gate more cer­ti­fi­ca­tion work to man­u­fac­tur­ers.

A re­port ac­com­pa­ny­ing a spend­ing bill last year said that uti­liz­ing the FAA’s pro­gram for del­e­gat­ing au­thor­ity to man­u­fac­tur­ers was “key to im­prov­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness and ef­fi­ciency of prod­uct cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

“Ide­ally, if re­sources are no con­straint, you would want the reg­u­la­tor to be do­ing it all,” said Christo­pher A. Hart, a for­mer FAA of­fi­cial and Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board chair­man. “But this isn’t the ideal world and re­sources are con­strained.”

Hart cited the stel­lar safety record of com­mer­cial air travel in the United States in re­cent years as ev­i­dence of the del­e­ga­tion sys­tem’s suc­cess. “If it’s prop­erly done,” he said, “it can equate to the safety of not del­e­gat­ing.”

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