Making Aircraft Certification Safe and Modern for the Global Aviation Industry

The Senate Commerce Committee held a contentious hearing this week to examine the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight of aircraft certification. The backdrop for the hearing, of course, was the Boeing 737 MAX following two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia more than a year ago. Boeing acknowledged that the crashes were likely a result of a “high workload environment” coupled with “erroneous activation” of the planes’ Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a new feature unique to the 737 MAX designed to help pilots stabilize the aircraft.

The hearing focused on the committee’s sharp concern for the way the FAA verifies the safety of aviation equipment like the MCAS in the United States today. The process—known as certification—is critically important in order to ensure public confidence in the system and strict adherence to these standards helps maintain the strong demand for U.S. aviation products worldwide. Yet despite continuous work on improving the certification and approval processes, the recent problems with the 737 MAX aircraft raised concerns about its effectiveness.

Such criticism is not new. For decades, experts and analyses questioned FAA’s ability to certify aviation products and oversee airline practices. Today there are still apparent misunderstandings about what the certification process is and how it works. The FAA operates a form of “delegated certification,” where employees at designated organizations are given the authority to certify its own products. Distinctly different from “self-certification,” delegation is the global standard for certification internationally. In the European Union, qualified manufacturers are afforded more authority to make findings of compliance. However, it requires a competent government and a cooperative industry to work.

That is where the Commerce Committee members drilled in. Chairman Roger Wicker expressed deep frustration with what he called the FAA’s “lack of cooperation” and “non-responsiveness” to his committee’s inquiries. (Following the hearing, the FAA pushed back on Wicker’s criticism, claiming it responded to the Senator with thousands of pages of documents.) The main substantive point of the hearing was that the FAA needs to be able to cope with new technologies while maintaining high standards for safety at a time where the availability of government resources is uncertain. While the current problems focus on perceived “coziness” of the FAA and Boeing, the challenge is that effective performance-based certification demands a strong and knowledgeable regulator. Reams of research and analysis—including a major Eno report—have called for increased performance based certification and dramatic improvements in the FAA’s ability to fulfill its oversight role.

However, one thing is certain: the FAA will still—and must—retain its role as the nation’s preeminent safety regulator. While there is no doubt that the United States’ stellar safety record is due, in large part, to the agency’s establishing and implementing certification standards and review, action is needed to reassure the public and the world that the FAA is a global leader in safety. Chair Wicker and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell introduced legislation to increase the FAA’s oversight role.

The recent Eno report illustrates how the certification system needs to allow rule changes to be done quicker and focus not on administrative processes, but on collaboration and engineering safety analysis and oversight. The rules must be clear and when doubts on application or interpretation arise, there should be mechanisms for swift resolution. The goal should be to move towards the implementation of risk-informed, performance-based standards for both new and existing users in the global airspace.

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