By Michael Laris / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration is moving to create a new safety branch to address “gaps” in its oversight as a result of recent deadly crashes and a controversial agency reorganization, according to an internal agency email obtained by The Washington Post.
The move comes as the agency faces intense scrutiny for certifying in 2017 that Boeing’s 737 Max planes were safe, despite what investigators would later say was a flawed flight control feature that contributed to two crashes that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
The email sent Monday to employees in the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, or AIR, does not mention the Max directly, and is written in bureaucratic language that eschews finger pointing and emphasizes the complexities of aviation safety.
But it offers new, though still incomplete, insight into how the agency is diagnosing its own shortcomings, even as administrator Steve Dickson is set to face a congressional oversight hearing Wednesday.
The email notes that “recent accidents and incidents have highlighted the need to better unify and manage our response.”
Safety is managed “in a successful fashion” across the board, but “a need remains to ensure our strategic safety planning, direction, and program implementation are better integrated,” according to the email, which was written by Mel Johnson, the acting director of the certification service’s organizational performance division.
To help accomplish that, the agency will create an “Aircraft Certification Safety Program Management Branch,” according to Johnson.
The new branch will, in part, address concerns arising from the agency’s own ongoing reorganization of its certification offices, according to the email.
A key focus after the Max crashes has been the FAA’s system for delegating oversight of Boeing planes to the company itself, raising concerns that the company and regulator have become too cozy. House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who has been leading an investigation into the regulatory implications of the crashes, said “the law and the oversight failed.”
Before the crashes, the FAA set out to reorganize its offices responsible for certification. Some FAA officials said the new structure is expected to be used to hand over more oversight authority to Boeing as instructed by Congress last year. The agency said one of its goals is to “reduce the time for approval decisions” on airplane safety, according to an FAA presentation, and an agency employee said the objective is to make sure the FAA is not a “bottleneck” for industry.
FAA leaders have repeatedly said they will review the results of outside inquiries, including one set up by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, as they decide how the agency might change its highly delegated oversight system. The email does not offer any information on agency views on that question.
But it does signal that the ongoing reorganization has had unintended consequences, some of which may be affecting its mission.
“Ever-changing demands on the organization and gaps in our newly re-aligned AIR infrastructure hinder our capability to address aviation safety responsibilities holistically,” according to the email, which did not cite examples of how that has happened.
The email said the new branch will serve a “national safety program management function,” and “disperse safety information” across the certification service broadly.
“A single point of contact is needed to synthesize safety information drawn from across the organization,” it said.
Current and former FAA officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the unannounced changes, said it remains unclear how effective the new branch will be.
A former agency official pointed to the results of a review by a group of U.S. and international safety experts who said communication breakdowns, bureaucracy and staffing disparities between Boeing and the FAA meant that key agency safety personnel did not know enough about the power of the flawed automated feature on the Max until after the crashes.
That review also found that the FAA group that oversees the manufacturing giant, known as the Boeing Aviation Safety Oversight Office, has a staff of 45 people. That’s compared with a team of 1,500 Boeing employees the FAA has tasked with handling certification work as part of the delegated oversight program known as Organization Designation Authorization.
“It was a deliberate choice to have so few people there” in the Boeing safety oversight office, the former official said. While “creating another layer” with the new branch may make sense, doing so does not address broader decisions on how the FAA should be allocating its resources overall to best promote safety, the former official said.
The new branch is being set up at the direction of certification service executive director Earl Lawrence, who will accompany Dickson to Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The FAA has selected Mike Reinert for a six-month stint as the temporary aircraft certification program manager. Reinert will work with top certification leaders and others to come up a strategy to “stand up” the new branch, the email said.
By increasing collaboration with safety experts, including those from industry and overseas, the new branch “will help improve understanding of systemic areas of risk and facilitate identification of emerging safety issues,” the email said.