In this Nov. 4, 2018 photo, officials move an engine recovered from the crashed Lion Air jet for further investigation in Jakarta, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, File)

In this Nov. 4, 2018 photo, officials move an engine recovered from the crashed Lion Air jet for further investigation in Jakarta, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, File)

FAA’s close ties to Boeing questioned after 2 deadly crashes

The agency concedes that it doesn’t have resources to keep up with a growing aviation industry.

By Tom Krisher, David Koenig and Dee-Ann Durbin / Associated Press

For more than six decades, the Federal Aviation Administration has relied on employees of airplane manufacturers to do government-required safety inspections as planes are being designed or assembled.

But critics say the system, dubbed the “designee program,” is too cozy as company employees do work for an agency charged with keeping the skies safe while being paid by an industry that the FAA is regulating.

“There is a potential conflict of interest,” said Todd Curtis, a former Boeing Co. safety engineer and creator of airsafe.com, a website that focuses on airline safety. “They (the FAA) don’t have the money to do all of the oversight. It’s a question of being practical.”

The FAA’s oversight duties are coming under greater scrutiny after deadly crashes involving Boeing 737 Max jets operated by airlines in Ethiopia and Indonesia, killing a total of 346 people. The U.S. was nearly alone in allowing the planes to keep flying until it relented on Wednesday after getting satellite evidence showing the crashes may be linked.

The FAA concedes that it doesn’t have resources to keep up with a growing aviation industry, and experts say it lacks the personnel to inspect every component, especially those made in other countries. But the agency says the program’s results speak for themselves. The U.S. has the safest skies in the world. Until April of last year, U.S. passenger airlines had not had a fatality since 2009, while carrying several billion passengers.

But safety experts say it’s time to look into the agency’s relationship with Boeing, based in Chicago. The FAA’s ties to the company were revealed when Boeing and the agency released similar messages shortly after the Indonesian airliner crashed in October and again this week, when the FAA announced that Boeing would upgrade the Max’s flight-control software, said Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector general.

With the messages, the FAA “revealed that they were just parroting what Boeing told them,” she said.

The agency needs more people with technical skills to adequately monitor a company that makes machines as sophisticated as today’s jets, she said, contending that it didn’t understand the Max’s flight-control computer program.

“The FAA readily states they don’t understand the 4 million lines of code and the 150 computers,” Schiavo said. “What they do is see that Boeing followed the process, they checked the FAA boxes. The public thinks the FAA has more involvement.”

Indeed, the agency’s own website says that employees of manufacturers can approve design changes and aircraft repairs. “Using designees for routine certification tasks allows the FAA to focus its limited resources on safety critical certification issues,” it says.

Congress will examine the relationship between Boeing and the FAA. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he would hold hearings on the FAA’s process for approving the planes.

The agency’s practice of delegating certification processes has come under scrutiny before. In a 1993 report, the Government Accountability Office warned that the FAA was falling behind the industry in technical competence because of lack of training and delegation of tasks to the manufacturers. The report said 95 percent of certification work for the Boeing 747-400 jetliner was delegated to the manufacturer in 1989. By comparison, 70 to 75 percent of that work was done by the FAA in the early 1980s, the report said.

In a separate report in 2005, the GAO said the FAA had no requirements for evaluating its designated certification workers within the industry. It also had incomplete records about safety violations that occurred during the inspection process.

FAA designees have also run afoul of the law. Last February, Edward Carl Fernandez, an FAA-designated representative in Florida, pleaded guilty to falsely certifying the airworthiness of aviation parts. Between 2010 and 2013, prosecutors said, Fernandez would sign off on parts from an aviation repair company in exchange for bribes.

Checks by the employees, who are paid by the airplane makers, are reviewed by government inspectors. In a 2017 video, FAA Assistant Administrator Peggy Gilligan said the agency had 6,000 engineers and aircraft inspectors overseeing 7,500 designees in aircraft certification and flight standards. Another 4,000 designees are working at FAA-approved companies, like parts suppliers.

Curtis, who worked for Boeing from 1991 to 2000, said the system is designed so that company employees defer to the FAA if they find something wrong.

Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director who now is an aviation safety consultant, said the system has worked well for years. “But at times like this, people start to question it,” he said.

He’s not one of them, though, saying that the proof is in the outcome. “We have had the safest aviation system in the world for a long time,” Goelz said. “The size of the bureaucracy you would need to move to a completely ‘gotcha environment’ simply would be unsustainable.”

James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he thinks the agency may have gotten complacent.

“We have a good system,” said Hall, the former NTSB chairman, “and sometimes people go to sleep when things are going well. It’s time to wake up.”

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.