Eclipse Aviation Meets Congress

 - October 1, 2008, 8:21 AM

Congressional hearings are often contentious, and the House aviation subcommittee investigation of the Sept. 30, 2006 type certification of the Eclipse 500 sparked some lively debate.

The Democratic majority of the subcommittee said the investigation was the result of allegations that the FAA rushed to approve the type and production certificates despite the fact that a number of FAA certification engineers and aviation safety inspectors raised safety concerns about the design and manufacturing of the aircraft.

The same contingent contended that when design deficiencies that appeared to be noncompliant with FAA certification requirements were identified, senior FAA management became personally involved, overruled lower-level engineers and inspectors, worked diligently to find “work-arounds,” or “alternative approval rationales and techniques,” and accepted “IOUs” for later compliance.

One broad policy issue that needs further examination, the majority contended, relates to the many “loopholes” the FAA has at its disposal to find “alternative means of compliance” or “equivalent levels of safety” for certification regulations. “Thus, the allegations and findings in this case are cause for concern and suggest the immediate need for a broad policy review of the FAA certification process,” the panel said.

While the majority staff characterized these methods as “loopholes” that allow manufacturers to produce flawed and unsafe aircraft outside of certification guidelines, the Republican staff “wholeheartedly” rejected that notion and embraced these methods as a means of allowing innovation in the aircraft industry within acceptable levels of risk within a safety system that requires multiple redundancies.

In addition to the Eclipse type certification, the committee seemed to be targeting the FAA’s Customer Service Initiative (CSI), whereby airlines and aircraft manufacturers are treated more as “customers” than regulated entities. CSI came under scrutiny earlier this year when the Department of Transportation’s inspector general found that FAA managers last year allowed Southwest Airlines to fly 46 airplanes that were overdue for safety checks, ignoring the inspectors who raised concerns.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the FAA is “mistaken” that the regulated are considered “customers.”

DOT IG Calvin Scovel testified at the outset, “[This] isn’t about an unsafe aircraft that must be grounded immediately. We received complaints that the Eclipse jet was pushed through [certification].”