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Dickson: FAA Progressing on Certification Reforms

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The administration’s relationship with Boeing has been ‘reset,’ Administrator Dickson told House lawmakers Thursday.

By Kimberly Johnson Oct 21 2021

After two crashes of Boeing 737 Max aircraft that claimed 346 lives, the Federal Aviation Administration has changed its relationship with Boeing amid the agency’s overhaul of its certification and oversight process, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told House lawmakers Thursday.

“When I came on board as FAA administrator almost two and half years ago now, the first thing I did was reset the relationship with Boeing,” Dickson said. “I have made it clear to them continually that we will continue to exercise a high level of scrutiny.”

Dickson was called to testify before the House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee to discuss the agency’s progress toward implementing the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act, a 2020 bipartisan aviation reform law resulting from the incidents.

How We Got Here

In October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea minutes after departing an airport in Indonesia, killing 189 passengers and crew. An investigation revealed the 737 MAX aircraft, which had been in service two months, incurred flight control problems and instrument and angle of attack (AoA) sensor failures, which were exacerbated by a new maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) and pilot response to the malfunctions.ADVERTISEMENT

Less than five months later, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed under similar circumstances, killing all 157 passengers and crew, eventually prompting regulators around the world, including the FAA, to ground all 737 Max aircraft.

The crashes prompted international civil aviation, FAA and National Transportation Safety Board investigations, as well as an 18-month congressional probe that culminated with the passage of the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act. It was the first major piece of federal legislation in a decade targeting aviation safety.

“The committee’s thorough investigation uncovered flawed management decisions and inadequate organizational structures at Boeing and the FAA that were necessary to confront,” House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee Chair Rick Larsen (D-Washington) said Thursday.

INSIDE THE ACT

The Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act aims to establish transparency and accountability in the FAA’s regulation of U.S. aircraft manufacturers through a laundry list of requirements including:
Restoring FAA approval of organization designation authorization (ODA) unit members
Enabling direct FAA oversight and communication
Enabling direct FAA oversight and communicationRequiring integration of safety analysis of design changes for all new and derivative aircraft
Ensuring new and derivative aircraft comply with latest flight crew alerting regulationsMandating safety management systems (SMS) for manufacturers
Requiring disclosure of safety-critical informationProhibiting interference with FAA designees
Prohibiting incentives for FAA employees based on industry schedules
Repealing authority for industry to set FAA performance goals
Requiring up-front review of design assumptions and new and novel aircraft technologies
Creating new safety reporting for FAA employees
Repealing authority permitting self-certification by industry
Repealing authority for automatic delegation of certain functions
Providing expert project teams to advise on certification
Strengthening international standards
Requiring FAA to review and verify human factor assumptions
Establishing a national air grant program
Identifying emerging safety trends in a new biennial report to Congress submitted by the Transportation Research Board
Requiring an annual assessment of FAA safety culture
Building FAA expertise for emerging technologies
Facilitating continuing education of FAA certification employees
Establishing a new center of excellence (COE) on flight automation and human factors
Increasing funding for research on composites and advanced aviation materials
Strengthening FAA’s direct oversight of aircraft certification
Implementing new integrated system analyses of new and derivative aircraft
Requiring aircraft manufacturers to disclose technological changes to aircraft
Implementing new safety reports requirements and whistleblower protections

“This legislation should prevent the FAA and Boeing from committing egregious acts, omissions, and errors similar to those that caused those two tragedies and claiming more lives in the future,” House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said in a statement.

In the nearly three years since the Lion Air incident, the FAA has made “significant progress” on addressing findings and recommendations stemming from numerous investigations, Dickson told lawmakers.

“We will continue to prioritize our work to improve aviation safety to make sure this never happens again,” he said.

“We’re committed to the robustness of the certification process, including our oversight of the functions that we delegate to aircraft designers and manufacturers,” Dickson said.

What’s Being Done

The FAA is now delegating fewer responsibilities to manufacturers, and is demanding more transparency from them, Dickson told the House panel. Proposed system changes are evaluated from a whole aircraft perspective, including the human interface elements. The agency is also promoting the use of SMS and created guidance for voluntary SMS programs, he said.

Four aircraft manufacturers have already voluntarily adopted SMS programs, and six others are “in the pipeline,” Dickson said.

Other ongoing FAA initiatives, according to Dickson, include:

  • Pursuing rulemaking to standardize guidance for system safety assessments on transport aircraft
  • Taking a “fresh look” at human factor assumptions used by the agency for design and certification of transport aircraft including pilot response times
  • Expanding data collection and analytics tools in order to more effectively share safety data within the agency and among stakeholders

Call for ‘More Accountability’

Dickson’s testimony comes a week after a federal grand jury indicted former Boeing 737 Max chief technical pilot Mark Forkner, who is accused of scheming to defraud Boeing customers and deceiving the FAA. Last January, Boeing agreed to pay a fine of more than $2.5 billion as part of a deal to resolve criminal prosecution from the U.S. Department of Justice.

More accountability is needed, DeFazio said.

“The fact that one person has been indicted, [and] Boeing was slapped with a fine that’s insignificant in terms of their revenues. I’m concerned that we haven’t seen a major change in the culture there,” DeFazio said of the aircraft manufacturer.

The new aviation safety law, however, ensures continued pressure on the agency from lawmakers going forward.

“It’s a mandate from Congress that the culture at the FAA is going to change,” DeFazio said. “The scrutiny is going to change.”

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