On Thursday, January 16, 2020, the Official Report of the Special Committee to review the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Certification Process was released, and it seems like quite a few people – i.e. very vocal critics of Boeing and the FAA – are not likely to be pleased by the lack of lambasting language in the report. This is only the most recent development in the still-unfolding story of the Boeing 737 MAX passenger airliner, the aircraft at the center of the two fatal crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 that killed 346 people in total. The committee’s report has been released amid outcry over recently disclosed internal documents diplomatically labelled as “troubling” and reports of impending job cuts and layoffs from companies within the Boeing 737 MAX supply chain. “Troubling” may be putting it mildly.
“The Committee applauds the remarkable gains in safety achieved by U.S. aviation and recognizes the safety benefits provided to the worldwide aviation system. However, each member of the Committee fully acknowledges the two foundational premises that risk will always exist in aviation and that no fatality in commercial aviation is acceptable.”Official Report of the Special Committee to review the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Process, Executive Summary, page 6
With all of this currently happening, now is a good time for a bit of background to get up to speed. On October 29, 2018, Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 departed from Jakarta and crashed into the Java Sea twelve minutes later, killing all 189 passengers and crew on board. Less than five months later on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 departed from Addis Ababa and flew for only six minutes before plummeting directly into a field at almost 700 miles per hour. Once again, all passengers and crew on board, totaling 157 people, were killed in the crash.
In the interim between the two crashes, partial fault was tentatively attributed to malfunctions in one of the aircraft’s Angle of Attack (AOA) sensors (check out these sources for a relatively clear and more in-depth explanation of the technical side of this).The MAX was equipped with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an automated system designed to activate and correct the problem when the AOA began to reach unsafe levels. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Erroneous AOA readings during both flights led to MCAS automatically activating, pitching the nose of the aircraft down while pilot and co-pilot fought to right the aircraft. This happened repeatedly until the planes ultimately crashed.
Today, in the aftermath of the two planes crashing, it’s understood that the single faulty AOA sensor and MCAS are among a number of factors that caused the accidents. Since then, Boeing and the FAA have had no shortage of critics. Going into the entire timeline of events would take quite a while, so here are some highlights: the MAX was grounded around the world and the grounding remains in effect today; Boeing reportedly misled FAA regulators as to the full extent of MCAS’s abilities and failed to mention the system in pilots’ manuals; and the international aviation community has come down hard on the FAA’s certification process, with some countries demanding changes before it will allow the MAX to return to service. (A timeline of pretty much everything can be found here.)
“The FAA’s certification system is a process sanctioned by Congress, driven by regulation, directed by the FAA, and implemented by certified organizations and individuals. It is an iterative, comprehensive process grounded in the cumulative expertise of the FAA gained through over a half century of process management and oversight.”Official Report of the Special Committee to review the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Process, Executive Summary, page 6
Clearly, Boeing and the FAA are ready for the plot twists to come to an end and the Special Committee’s report must seem like a small point of light in an incredibly long, bleak, and dark night. My personal flair for dramatics aside, the report does seem to come to different conclusions than most. The Committee, made up of five aviation safety experts chosen by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, was formed to review: 1) “the FAA’s product certification process, the use of delegated authority, and the approval and oversight of designees”, and 2) “the certification process applied to the Boeing 737 MAX 8, which occurred from 2012 to 2017.” While the report does provide a number of recommendations, the Committee ultimately came to the conclusions that the FAA’s current certification process based on delegated authority is good one and that the FAA and Boeing followed the required process in certifying the MAX.
“As reflected by the safety statistics cited above, the Committee found that the FAA’s certification system is effective and a significant contributor to the world’s safest aviation system.”Official Report of the Special Committee to review the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Process, Executive Summary, page 6
The report also cautions against a complete overhaul of the FAA’s delegation of authority framework for the certification process. However, members of Congress couldn’t seem to disagree more, especially after a slew of internal communications showing Boeing employees saying some pretty damning things were released earlier this month – calling regulators ‘clowns’ is never a good call. One particularly vocal FAA critic and crusader for legislative action is Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Pulling no punches, DeFazio has stated that “the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public” in allowing the MAX to fly despite knowing the risks.
“Any radical changes to this system could undermine the collaboration and expertise that undergird the current certification system, jeopardizing the remarkable level of safety that has been attained in recent decades.”Official Report of the Special Committee to review the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Process, Executive Summary, page 8
The question now is how, or even if, this report will impact the calls for change. Recent plot twists caution that there’s no telling what will happen next.