Transportation IG Sees Continuing Oversight Weakness at FAA

 - February 25, 2021, 8:21 AM
Boeing 737 Maxes sit in storage in Moses Lake, Washington, in October 2019. (Photo: Barry Ambrose)

Federal investigators have concluded that weaknesses in the FAA’s certification and delegation processes hindered its oversight of the certification of the Boeing 737 Max 8, according to a DOT inspector general’s report published Wednesday. The report found that the agency’s limitations in the FAA’s guidance and certification processes led to a “significant misunderstanding” of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), the flight control software identified as contributing to the two accidents.

Although the IG report also said the FAA addressed many of the deficiencies outlined in a June 2020 interim report, it concluded that “it is not clear” that the FAA’s current oversight structure and processes can effectively identify future safety concerns within the Boeing Organization Designation Authority (ODA) structure.

“First, FAA’s certification guidance does not adequately address integrating new technologies into existing aircraft models,” noted the report. “Second, FAA did not have a complete understanding of Boeing’s safety assessments performed on MCAS until after the first accident. Communication gaps further hindered the effectiveness of the certification process.”

The report further indicates that the FAA has not yet implemented a so-called risk-based approach to ODA oversight, and engineers in the FAA’s Boeing oversight office continue to face “challenges” in balancing certification and oversight responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Boeing ODA process and structure do not ensure adequate independence of ODA personnel, it concluded.

The report lists 14 recommendations to improve the certification process and oversight of the Boeing ODA. The FAA concurred and provided appropriate actions and planned completion dates, the report added.

The latest IG document builds on a timeline report issued last June that found Boeing failed to submit certification documents to the FAA on modifications to the 737 Max jet’s MCAS, including significantly increasing the system’s ability to lower the aircraft’s nose automatically under certain conditions. Although FAA flight-test personnel knew of the change, “key” agency certification engineers and personnel responsible for approving the level of airline pilot training told the IG’s office they did not. In comments published in the appendix of the June 2020 timeline report, the FAA conceded that its oversight suffered from a lack of effective communication, not only between Boeing and the agency but within the agency itself, “which led to an incomplete understanding of the scope and potential safety impacts of changes to the flight control system.”

Wednesday’s report blamed weaknesses in the FAA’s processes and guidance for its engineers’ lack of necessary knowledge during the certification that limited their ability to make informed decisions about the safety of the aircraft.

“For decades, FAA has maintained an admirable safety record,” concluded the IG’s office. “However, the lessons of the Boeing 737 Max demonstrate the need for a more holistic approach to both certification and FAA’s safety oversight of manufacturers. To its credit, FAA is taking significant action to correct identified weaknesses.”

Still, “much work remains” to address weaknesses in the FAA’s certification guidance and processes and to improve its communication with manufacturers and within the agency, it added.

“In addition, FAA has not yet taken sufficient steps to ensure it best targets its ODA oversight to the highest-risk areas,” noted the report.

For example, the FAA’s ODA program does not prevent conflicting duties of ODA unit members, and preventing interference with ODA unit members “remains a concern,” the report concluded.