Steve Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., on March 5. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg, file)

Steve Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C., on March 5. (Zach Gibson/Bloomberg, file)

FAA faces its own reckoning as it gives Boeing path to fly jet

The agency is devoting more time and resources to assess how pilots react to emergencies.

By Alan Levin / Bloomberg

It’s not just Boeing’s 737 Max that needed repairs.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which approved what officials acknowledge was a flawed design implicated in two deadly crashes of the jetliner, found itself facing criticism from regulators around the world — a stunning turnabout for an organization accustomed to global deference.

In the wake of the disasters, the FAA is revising how it reviews new aircraft after panels of outside experts cited organizational deficiencies. Congress, which conducted its own investigations, is poised to cut the FAA’s reliance on inspectors working for manufacturers such as Boeing and may provide money for the agency to hire more engineers.

The changes have huge implications for one of America’s leading industries as well as the safety of air travel. After decades in which the industry has sought more flexibility from the FAA, adding new restrictions could make approvals more costly or slow down the oversight process.

“I would say for everyone involved, aviation is something that we have to approach with humility and a certain amount of skepticism,” said Steve Dickson, who was named FAA administrator after the crashes. “We have to make sure we’re always asking questions, not taking things at face value.”

Yet even that may not be enough for some relatives of the crash victims and critics of the agency, which has cleared the plane to resume flights.

“The lax oversight that, in effect, let Boeing self-certify the safety of the aircraft remains in place,” Democratic Sens. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said Wednesday in a joint statement. “Some small changes have been made by the agency, but they are not sufficient.”

Dickson early Wednesday signed an order allowing the 737 Max, Boeing’s best-selling jet, to return to service. The agency is requiring fixes to a flight-control feature implicated in the two crashes that killed 346 people and other changes addressing safety issues uncovered during a 20-month grounding.

The crashes, in Ethiopia and off the coast of Indonesia, focused attention on the agency and review panels came out with recommendations to prevent the kind of miscommunication and miscalculations in the original approval of the Max. Foreign regulators, such as the European Aviation Safety Agency, have said they may conduct more rigorous rules of FAA approved planes.

For major certification projects in the future, the FAA will create a new position of program manager who can ensure that design decisions are shared among departments, Dickson said in an interview and press conference.

Creating an outside panel of experts, such as one that reviewed FAA’s decisions on the Max, will become standard on all such projects, Dickson added. The agency is also devoting more time and resources to assess how pilots react to emergencies and writing regulations requiring better internal safety measures at companies such as Boeing, all of which were identified as shortfalls during the plane’s approval.

Dickson told reporters that “we don’t know” whether those changes will cause future aviation programs to take longer, which would add more costs on industry.

The agency hopes that opening lines of communication with entities it regulates can actually speed the approval process even as it adds rigor to oversight, he said.

“That’s what we’re shooting for in terms of improving and moving to really the next level of safety with aircraft certification,” he added. “I wouldn’t say longer, but I would say better.”

At the same time, Dickson has repeatedly said the agency must take as much time as needed to ensure designs are safe.

Separate legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate would mandate some of the steps the FAA is taking and go further.

A House version that passed on Tuesday would give the FAA more authority over the employees at companies who are deputized to review designs in behalf of the government. Boeing engineers gave the final approval of the 737 Max flight-control system implicated in the crashes, but didn’t fully inform the FAA about changes to the system, according to several reviews.

A similar bill was passed by a Senate committee on Wednesday. While both measures have bipartisan support, it’s unclear whether the two chambers can reach agreement on them before Congress adjourns.

Critics including Markey and Blumenthal say more is needed to give the FAA greater authority.

The measures the agency is enacting on its own and those that may be imposed by lawmakers will incrementally help improve safety and aren’t likely to significantly disrupt the certification process, said a former government official and aviation consultant who is following the debate. But it’s possible that they could lengthen the process initially, said the official, who asked not to be named while discussing the issue.

The Aerospace Industries Association trade group said in a statement that it is working with the FAA on the changes. “It is crucial to design thoughtful and effective policies that will continue American global leadership in aviation safety and innovation,” David Silver, the group’s vice president for civil aviation, said in a statement.

One of the key measures to improve oversight is contained in the House bill — $27 million a year in new funds to hire and train FAA engineers and other inspectors, said J.E. Murdock, a former FAA chief counsel and acting deputy administrator in the 1980s who writes a blog on aviation safety.

One of the lessons of the accidents is that the FAA is sorely in need of more engineering expertise and resources, Murdock said, adding that he’s more skeptical that other changes would have much of an impact.

The steps being imposed by the FAA have meant little to the vocal group of families of victims in the Ethiopian Airlines crash of a 737 Max in March 2019.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose grand-niece Samya Stumo was aboard the Ethiopian plane, accused the FAA of “going through the motions” in a press release Wednesday after the grounding was lifted.

“It is long overdue for the FAA to stop protecting Boeing’s criminal negligence and start protecting the public,” Nader said.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Dan Bates / The Herald
When Seattle Genetics founder, Clay Siegall lost his father while in college, he switched from studying for an MD to studying for a PhD., and a goal to treat cancer patients.  His efforts are paying off in lives.
Bothell biotech CEO resigns after domestic-violence allegation

Clay Siegall co-founded Seagen, which develops therapies for cancer patients. He’s accused of attacking his wife.

FILE - A sign at a Starbucks location in Havertown, Pa., is seen April 26, 2022. Starbucks says it will pay travel expenses for U.S. employees to access abortion or gender-confirmation procedures if those services aren't available within 100 miles of a worker’s home. The Seattle coffee chain says, Monday, May 16, 2022, the benefit will also be available to dependents of employees enrolled in its health care coverage. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)
Starbucks will cover travel for workers seeking abortions

Amazon and Tesla also will provide the benefit. Walmart and Facebook have stayed silent.

A barista pours steamed milk into a red paper cup while making an espresso drink at a Starbucks coffee shop in the Pike Place Market, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Seattle. It's as red as Santa's suit, a poinsettia blossom or a loud Christmas sweater. Yet Starbucks' minimalist new holiday coffee cup has set off complaints that the chain is making war on Christmas. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Interfaith group asks Starbucks to drop vegan milk surcharge

They say the practice amounts to a tax on people who have embraced plant-based lifestyles.

FILE - In this Monday, March 1, 2021 file photo, The first Alaska Airlines passenger flight on a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane takes off on a flight to San Diego from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. A Boeing pilot involved in testing the 737 Max jetliner was indicted Thursday, Oct. 14,2021 by a federal grand jury on charges of deceiving safety regulators who were evaluating the plane, which was later involved in two deadly crashes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Alaska Airlines to keep canceling flights at high level for weeks

Flight cancellations since April will continue. The chaos has been damaging for Seattle’s hometown airline.

FILE - An airplane flies past the Boeing logo on the company's headquarters in Chicago, on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2001. Boeing Co., a leading defense contractor and one of the world's two dominant manufacturers of airline planes, is expected to move its headquarters from Chicago to the Washington, D.C., area, according to two people familiar with the matter. The decision could be announced as soon as later Thursday, May 5, 2022, according to one of the people. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Boeing expected to move headquarters from Chicago to DC area

The move would put Boeing executives close to their key customer, the Pentagon, and the FAA.

This 3D rendering shows Sila's 6000-foot facility in Moses Lake, to be used to manufacture lithium-ion anode battery materials. (Business Wire)
New factory in Moses Lake will bring hundreds of new jobs

The plant will manufacture lithium-ion anode battery materials for cars and cellphones.

Dr. David Kirtley at the new Helion headquarters, Antares, in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Helion Energy: New Everett company has the sun in its eyes

The firm is the winner of a new award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County, called Opportunity Lives Here.

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring is this year's winner of the Henry M. Jackson Award given by Economic Alliance Snohomish County. Photographed in Marysville, Washington on April 25, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Jon Nehring: Longtime Marysville mayor who’s nurtured growth

He’s helped steer the city’s transformation and is winner of the Jackson Award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

Monti Ackerman, recipient of the John Fluke Award, is pictured Thursday, April 28, 2022, outside his office in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Monti Ackerman: A passionate volunteer and calculator whiz

The Fortive executive is the winner of this year’s Fluke Award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-38, is the recipient of this year's Henry M. Jackson award. The award recognizes a visionary leader who through partnership, tenacity and a strong commitment to community has created lasting opportunities to improve quality of life and positively impact the regional economy. Photographed in Everett, Washington on April 29, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Rep. Mike Sells: He fought for WSU Everett and worker rights

The retiring legislator is the recipient of the Floyd Award from Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

People sit outside the recently opened Amazon Go facility Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Mill Creek, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Cashier-less Amazon Go buzzing in Mill Creek grand opening

Locals came to check out the high-tech store, with $3 avocado toast and cameras watching customers’ every move.

Joel Bervell (Courtesy photo)
TikTok med student @joelbervell named top Emerging Leader

Joel Bervell, who highlights disparities in medicine, took top honors at an event for 12 rising stars in Snohomish County.