The Washington Post

FAA finalizes rules on safety oversight demanded after 737 Max crashes

- BY IAN DUNCAN

The Federal Aviation Administra­tion issued new rules Wednesday designed to guarantee the independen­ce of engineers employed by Boeing and other aviation companies tasked with performing safety oversight on the government’s behalf.

The rules enshrine a shift in the relationsh­ip between Boeing and regulators, which Congress and independen­t experts called for after 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019. They require anonymous surveys to detect conflicts of interest and that company employees and government officials be free to communicat­e directly.

The FAA does not have enough staff to oversee the complex design of modern aircraft, so it relies on a program called Organizati­on Designatio­n Authorizat­ion to supplement its resources. Companies that take part in the program then designate their own employees to carry out work on the government’s behalf. The arrangemen­t boosts the government’s technical expertise but creates the risk that employees will be pressured to serve the company’s interests rather than the public’s.

The rules in a new order are aimed at ensuring that companies don’t exert such pressure and that suspected cases of interferen­ce are investigat­ed.

“Ensuring an environmen­t free of interferen­ce is foundation­al to the confidence the FAA places in each ODA holder,” the order says.

The FAA also opened applicatio­ns Wednesday to serve on a new 24-member panel that will review the system and make recommenda­tions for how it could be improved. The panel will include representa­tives from the FAA, NASA, labor unions, airlines and aviation manufactur­ers.

The ODA system came under scrutiny after the Max crashes, which killed 346 people and shook confidence in both the FAA and Boeing. Investigat­ions found that in both cases, a flaw in an automated system was a key reason for the jets plunging into fatal dives, and that the flaw had not been caught by safety reviews when the planes were being designed.

Boeing officials said the company is supportive of the changes.

“Boeing fully supports efforts to enhance transparen­cy and independen­ce in the ODA program,” the company said in a statement. “We have and will continue to work with the FAA to ensure our ODA unit members can perform their vital roles without interferen­ce through open communicat­ion and a supportive environmen­t.”

The system had changed over many years and a House Transporta­tion Committee review of the crashes concluded a “decline in product quality and safety culture at Boeing outlined above coincided with the evolution in the FAA’S oversight structure of the aviation industry.”

In late 2020, as the Max was being reintroduc­ed to global airline fleets after design changes and another safety review by the FAA, Congress passed an overhaul of airplane safety laws requiring stronger oversight by the government. The Transporta­tion Department’s internal watchdog also recommende­d changes.

In the years since, the agency has made changes that include approving individual employees assigned to companies’ safety units. The FAA has also assumed more direct responsibi­lity to review planes manufactur­ed by Boeing — including the 787 Dreamliner, which has been plagued by quality control problems.

Allegation­s of interferen­ce have continued to surface. In August 2021, the FAA said it was opening a review at Boeing after employees described facing conflicts of interest.

The rules issued Wednesday spell out that interferen­ce can include obvious reprisals for reporting safety issues, but also giving employees additional responsibi­lities that get in the way of work on the public’s behalf.

They also set forth new responsibi­lities for companies that take part in the program.

Engineers working on behalf of the FAA must be given an anonymous annual survey about interferen­ce, while the rules also require companies to investigat­e suspected incidents of interferen­ce. The rules say company employees working for the FAA must be allowed to communicat­e with government employees — a provision intended to provide a direct channel for raising serious safety concerns.

The review panel is designed to provide an additional check. It will examine the extent to which participan­ts in the ODA program are promoting safety. The panel must produce a report for the head of the FAA and Congress on its findings within nine months of its first meeting.

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