FAA Administrator Steve Dickson speaks to lawmakers as Michael Stumo, holding a photo of his daughter Samya Rose Stumo, and his wife, Nadia Milleron, sit behind him during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on the implementation of aviation safety reform at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 3 (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson speaks to lawmakers as Michael Stumo, holding a photo of his daughter Samya Rose Stumo, and his wife, Nadia Milleron, sit behind him during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on the implementation of aviation safety reform at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 3 (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

FAA says Boeing is appointing people lacking expertise to oversee airplane certification

The company was replacing senior FAA-authorized engineers who took early retirement during the pandemic.

By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times

The Federal Aviation Administration this summer found Boeing had appointed engineers to oversee airplane certification work on behalf of the agency who lack the required technical expertise and often “are not meeting FAA expectations.”

An FAA letter of complaint to Boeing last week, the latest in a series this year from the local office that oversees the jet maker, states that many of the Boeing safety appointees the agency interviewed this summer did not measure up.

The need for those recent appointments arose because during the downturn from the pandemic Boeing offered early retirement to many more senior FAA-authorized safety engineers.

One FAA safety engineer, who cannot be identified because he spoke without FAA approval, said that in one certification specialty more than 20 such Boeing engineers left in a single month.

“I go to meetings now and don’t know the names,” he wrote in a text. “Brain drain!”

New rules are scheduled to take effect before year end that will require every proposed appointee to be interviewed by the FAA and then either approved or rejected by the agency.

In a statement Wednesday, Boeing said it intends to strengthen the selection process for such appointees and its oversight of airplane certification work more broadly.

“We’re committed to ensuring the highest levels of safety and quality in all that we do, and that includes the important work of Boeing employees who are designated as authorized representatives,” Boeing said.

The FAA delegates to these authorized safety appointees much of the airplane certification work, making sure tests are completed and that all designs comply with regulations.

Investigations into the botched certification of the 737 Max — which approved a fatally flawed flight control system with minimal oversight — severely criticized how this system worked, and Congress in December enacted FAA reform legislation requiring changes.

The FAA letter, dated Nov. 2, and addressed to Tom Galantowicz, Boeing vice president for product and services safety, lists a series of failures to meet FAA requirements among the engineers Boeing appointed to act on the agency’s behalf.

Some lacked “direct experience requiring expertise in the general certification process.”

Some were not “cognizant of related technical requirements and problems related to civil aircraft approval.”

Some did not know the “technical and procedural requirements involved in obtaining such approvals.”

Furthermore, the FAA complained of weaknesses in the Boeing panels that appointed these engineers. These panels “have not demonstrated an independent assessment of a candidate’s experience and technical capability.”

Instead, the letter states, in many cases the candidate’s direct manager and another person who had been mentoring the engineer were members of the panel.

The FAA said this made the appointment process appear to be just a formality by those assigned to train the person for the post, instead of being an independent validation that the candidate had made the grade.

The letter also asserts that Boeing has given some authorized safety appointees expanded authority without having one of these panels evaluate “if the designee is technically qualified” for the new role.

And finally it complains that Boeing selected internal advisers to the safety appointees without FAA approval and that during interviews, these Boeing advisers were not able to explain the requirements and responsibilities of their roles.

Change is in the works

The FAA found the deficiencies at Boeing during visits in July and August when it interviewed some of the new appointees. Since then the FAA has introduced new procedures to address the problem.

An FAA memo from October 15 says that within 60 days of that date the FAA must review and either approve or reject every authorized safety appointee at Boeing or any other company to whom certification work is delegated.

This memo simply complies with a requirement in the FAA reform act passed by Congress, which requires such approval to be in place by Jan. 1st.

Another Oct. 15 FAA memo gets ahead of another provision in that act, requiring that the FAA must appoint its own advisers to each of the Boeing appointees — thus establishing a direct relationship between every authorized safety engineer at Boeing with a technical counterpart at the FAA.

Previously, the Boeing authorized appointees reported to their Boeing managers and frequently had little or no direct contact with the FAA technical staff, an arrangement that drew criticism for undermining their independence from Boeing management.

The FAA letter was signed by Ian Won, the acting manager for aviation safety of the FAA’s local office that oversees Boeing, and Dr. Melisa Sandow, the FAA’s system oversight manager.

It was sent a day before FAA Administrator Steve Dickson appeared before a U.S. Senate committee last week and told Senators that because of the fatal Max accidents, his agency has Boeing under intense scrutiny.

This is the latest in a series of letters from Won’s office this year critical of Boeing’s safety and certification procedures.

In May, Won denied Boeing permission to move forward with a key step in certifying its forthcoming 777X airplane until it provides more data and testing.

In August, another letter from Won said an investigation had found a substantial number of engineers who do certification work for the FAA are concerned about Boeing management exerting pressure on them to speed the approval process and that the FAA would therefore conduct an independent survey of all such engineers.

At last week’s hearing, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who aggressively quizzed Dickson about lack of progress on FAA reform, praised Won by name and said she is “very appreciative” of his efforts to push Boeing into compliance with FAA safety regulations.

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