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.

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