Review Panel Faults FAA, Boeing in Max Certification Report

 - October 11, 2019, 2:05 PM
A Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 approaches Soekarno–Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

The FAA could not have properly assessed Boeing’s proposed certification activities associated with the Boeing 737 Max’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) due to the agency’s inadequate awareness of the system’s function and its “limited involvement” in oversight, according to a panel of global authorities charged with examining the circumstances that might have contributed to the crashes of the model in Indonesia and Ethiopia. In a report issued Friday, the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) panel also cited “undue pressures” on members of Boeing’s organization designation authorization (ODA) apparatus performing certification activities on the Max.

One of the panel’s primary recommendations addresses both a lack of sufficient technical expertise and the pressure placed on ODA members. “JATR team members recommend that the FAA conduct a workforce review of the [Boeing Aviation Safety Oversight Office] engineer staffing level to ensure there is a sufficient number of experienced specialists to adequately perform certification and oversight duties, commensurate with the extent of work being performed by Boeing,” said the report.

The panel also called for a work environment in which the ODA members could report concerns without fear of reprisal. “The FAA should review the Boeing Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) work environment and ODA manual to ensure the Boeing ODA engineering unit members (E-UMs) are working without any undue pressure when they are making decisions on behalf of the FAA,” it said. “This review should include ensuring the E-UMs have open lines of communication to FAA certification engineers without fear of punitive action or process violation.”

The JATR team also found that the MCAS hadn’t undergone evaluation “as a complete and integrated function” in the certification documents submitted to the FAA. A lack of a “unified, top-down” development and evaluation of the system’s function—along with “extensive and fragmented” documentation—made it difficult to assess compliance.

As for the MCAS itself, the panel cited Boeing's insufficient evaluation of the appropriateness of basing the design on data, architecture, and assumptions carried over from the 737NG.  

Other recommendations relate to the need for a “harmonized” approach to certification of changed products between the FAA, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and other civil aviation authorities. The panel also called for the FAA to establish “appropriate” pilot recognition times and reaction times to emergency situations, assumptions for which date back “decades,” it said. “Analysis of aviation accidents demonstrates that pilots may take a significantly longer time to recognize a malfunction and respond to it than the test flight guidance suggests,’ said the report.

In a written statement, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson acknowledged and thanked the JATR for its “unvarnished and independent review” of the certification of the 737 Max.

“As FAA Administrator, I will review every recommendation and take appropriate action,” said Dickson. “Today’s unprecedented U.S. safety record was built on the willingness of aviation professionals to embrace hard lessons and to seek continuous improvement. We welcome this scrutiny and are confident that our openness to these efforts will further bolster aviation safety worldwide. The accidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia are a somber reminder that the FAA and our international regulatory partners must strive to constantly strengthen aviation safety.”

For its part, Boeing offered similar sentiments. “Safety is a core value for everyone at Boeing and the safety of the flying public, our customers, and the crews aboard our airplanes is always our top priority,” it said in a statement. “Boeing appreciates the work of the Joint Authorities Technical Review and thanks Chairman Hart and the participating civil aviation authorities for their leadership and dedication to global aviation safety. Boeing is committed to working with the FAA in reviewing the recommendations and helping to continuously improve the process and approach used to validate and certify airplanes going forward.”