Torqued: Can the FAA Win Back the Aviation Safety Gold Standard?

 - November 2, 2020, 8:00 AM

Being the best matters in aviation as in other industries. Being perceived as the best matters, too, if you believe that perception is as important as reality when it comes to aviation safety. For the FAA, being considered the gold standard for aviation safety oversight has been a matter of pride for many up and down the agency's chain of command. I have heard bragging about this from FAA administrators as well as from executives, managers, and inspectors in offices around the country and in far-flung places.

Being the gold standard, of course, was of immeasurable benefit to aviation entities in the U.S. People buy U.S. aviation products, fly U.S. airlines, and use U.S.-certificated maintenance repair stations because of the confidence they place in the safety oversight that these entities are subjected to by the FAA

That gold standard has been severely tested by the two 737 Max crashes. The first occurred on Oct. 29, 2018, when Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia. The second occurred less than five months later when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed just six minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The two accidents killed a total of 346 people, including eight Americans. And thus began the tarnishing of the FAA’s reputation as the world's preeminent aviation safety authority. Recovering from that tarnishing is important to the critical safety oversight work that the FAA does and also to the American entities that depend on it.

As I write, one more report has been issued criticizing the FAA for its oversight of Boeing and the tragic 737 Max accidents that resulted. The latest report, from the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Oversight, details significant breakdowns at both Boeing and the FAA. The report criticizes the FAA for maintaining an oversight structure that allows for “inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardized the safety of the flying public” and a safety culture that prioritizes the opinions of the industry over those of its own employees. 

The House report was preceded by a U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General report. It will likely be followed by other reports. Criminal prosecutions may also result as the Department of Justice has convened a grand jury to review whistleblower complaints regarding the lead-up to these accidents. 

Reports criticizing the FAA are nothing new, of course. After every major accident or incident, fault can be found in many places including the government agency responsible for safety oversight. What hurt the FAA’s safety standing are the actions nations of the world took to ground the 737 Max before the FAA took similar action and, most disturbingly, while the FAA continued to insist on the safety of the aircraft. No report can compare with the reputational hit the FAA took when countries decided that safety demanded that they ground the aircraft regardless of what the FAA said about its safety. Whether done for purely safety reasons or partially for political or economic reasons, the impact was to tarnish the FAA as setting the gold standard for aviation safety. 

The first grounding of the 737 Max fleet was by Ethiopia following the crash on March 10, 2019. The next day, the Civil Aviation Authority of China grounded all 737 Max operations by its airlines. Shortly thereafter, the UK, the European Union, Canada, and other countries grounded the aircraft and closed their airspace to the 737 Max. The lone holdout was the FAA, which was still insisting on March 11 that the aircraft was safe to fly. But by March 13, the cascade of groundings from around the world could not be ignored and the FAA reversed course and closed U.S. airspace to the 737 Max as well.

(On a side note, I always found the FAA’s emergency order in this matter interesting. Instead of suspending the type certificate of the 737 Max as it had done with the DC-10 in 1979 or issuing an emergency airworthiness directive as in the case of the 787 battery fire, the FAA issued an Emergency Order of Prohibition. In my decades of reviewing FAA orders, including my 10 years as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, I had never seen or heard of such an order. The order prohibited operation of the 737 Max by U.S. operators and its operation over U.S. territory but did not attack the aircraft's airworthiness or type certification standards.)

As the FAA enters its final deliberations on restoring the 737 Max to operation, it's also time to consider how the FAA will prove to the world once again that it deserves to be considered the preeminent safety oversight organization. My suggestions are twofold. First, the agency should start listening to its employees and the employees of regulated entities in the same way it listens to executives of those regulated entities. For years I have seen the safety concerns of FAA employees, pilots and mechanics, and other employees of regulated entities given short shrift by agency supervisors and managers. If an employee raises a safety issue, take the time to analyze that issue and reach a decision based on a proper safety risk analysis. Of course, the FAA will not always agree with its employees or the employees of aviation entities raising concerns, but it should thoughtfully consider and properly analyze those concerns. Too often, I have not seen that happen in accident investigations I was involved in. 

My second suggestion is for agency executives, managers, and supervisors to always act as though they work for the public and not the aviation industry. Stop kowtowing to the industry and stop pressuring employees when industry executives complain. Treat the industry at arm’s length as a safety regulator should. Of course, the industry’s input and concerns are critical, but they are not the ultimate concerns. It will take time for public confidence and international confidence in the FAA to return. But I am confident that it can.