House Panel OKs Bill To Bolster Certification Oversight

 - October 1, 2020, 11:21 AM

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) on Wednesday approved by voice vote a comprehensive bill designed to address many of the issues that were raised over the past 18 months in the myriad reviews, reports, and investigations surrounding the Boeing 737 Max crashes.

Unveiled on Monday in a bipartisan fashion by the leadership of the House T&I Committee and the aviation subcommittee, the bill, H.R.8408, the Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act, includes more than two dozen recommendations to strengthen FAA oversight of certification and Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) activities involving transport-category (Part 25) aircraft.

In introducing the bill, T&I chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said he was “alarmed and outraged” by the findings of the committee’s investigation into the certification of the Boeing 737 Max. But he believes the bill will “meaningfully address the gaps in the regulatory system for certifying aircraft and adopt critical reforms that will improve public safety and ensure accountability at all levels going forward.”

During consideration of the bill, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), the ranking member on the T&I committee, agreed that “a number of expert reviews clearly identified that, unfortunately, mistakes were made.”

While he pointed out that the U.S. “can only do so much to influence factors outside our borders—including issues such as pilot training standards of other countries...We cannot remain the gold standard if our system isn’t safe” and safety experts have concluded that the system should be improved. “This bill is a good compromise that advances our shared goal of safety, and I’m appreciative that it is based on the recommendations of safety experts,” he said.

Meanwhile, House aviation subcommittee ranking member Garrett Graves (R-Louisiana) warned that “this bill is not the end. There are still going to be lessons learned as we move forward.” In particular, he said the bill should be applied to all manufacturers to ensure the casual safety relationships do not continue.

H.R.8408 includes many of the safety goals of legislation introduced last summer by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) to address some of the recommendations resulting from the Max crashes investigations and to improve management of the ODA program.

Both bills would mandate that manufacturers adopt safety management systems, a requirement largely welcomed within the industry. Neither bill prohibits the use of ODAs, but both seek to strengthen oversight of them. 

The House bill would convene an independent expert review panel to review Boeing's ODA in particular. More generally it calls for comprehensive periodic reviews of each manufacturing ODA capability and would step up oversight of certain individuals involved in ODA activity. Further, H.R.8408 would limit certification delegation involving the design of a “novel or unusual design feature."

The bill would set aside $27 million each year through Fiscal Year 2023 to enable the FAA to strengthen its certification oversight staff, including for the hiring, training, and development of engineers, safety inspectors, human factors specialists, and software and cybersecurity experts. In addition, it would add layers of oversight, include measures to protect against cozy relationships, encourage professional development, and call for a voluntary safety reporting program.

Other measures would cover safety assessment and whistleblower protections. The FAA would be directed to improve the process of issuing amended type certificates and take a leadership role in harmonizing efforts. Further, new airliners must be equipped with a centralized crew alerting system.

The bill further addresses a number of concerns that surfaced regarding training for new technologies. In particular, the FAA may not issue a new or amended type certificate for a transport airplane “unless the manufacturer has demonstrated to the FAA it has accounted for realistic assumption regarding pilot reaction time to non-normal conditions in designing the systems and instrumentation of such airplane.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which also represents 700 FAA safety professions within the FAA Aircraft Certification Service, endorsed the bill. NATCA executive v-p Trish Gilbert called it “a critical leap forward” and praised the funding to recruit and retain safety specialists, as well as its priority on professional development and skills enhancement.