FAA Hoist on Its Own Boeing 737 Max Petard: Multiagency Panel to Issue Report Criticizing Agency Approval Process, Call for Certification Changes

The FAA evidently lacked perspective on how much trouble it was in after the two international headline-grabbing crashes of the Boeing 737 Max. It established a “multiagency panel” meaning one that included representatives from foreign aviation regulators, last April. A new Wall Street Journal article reports that the findings of this panel, to be released in a few weeks, are expected to lambaste the FAA 737 Max approval process and urge a major redo of how automated aircraft systems get certified.

The aim of the panel, called the Joint Authorities Technical Review, was to expedite getting the 737 Max into the air by creating a vehicle for achieve consensus among foreign regulators who had grounded the 737 Max before the FAA had. But these very regulators had also made clear they needed to be satisfied before they’d let it fly in their airspace.

The JATR gave them a venue for reaching a consensus, but it wasn’t the consensus the FAA sought. The foreign regulators, despite being given a forum in which to hash things out with the FAA, are not following the FAA’s timetable. The FAA hopes to give the 737 Max the green light in November, while the other regulators all have said they have issues that are unlikely to be resolved by then. The agency is now in the awkward position of having a body it set up to be authoritative turn on the agency’s own procedures.

The Seattle Times, which has broken many important on the Boeing debacle, reported on how the FAA had moved further and further down the path of relying on aircraft manufactures for critical elements of certification. Not all of this was the result of capture; with the evolution of technology, even the sharpest and best intended engineer in government employ would become stale on the state of the art in a few years.

However, one of the critical decisions the FAA took was to change the reporting lines of the manufacturer employees who were assigned to FAA certification. From a May post:

Although all stories paint a broadly similar picture,….the most damning is a detailed piece at the Seattle Times, Engineers say Boeing pushed to limit safety testing in race to certify planes, including 737 MAX …..The article gives an incriminating account of how Boeing got the FAA to delegate more and more certification authority to the airline, and then pressured and abused employees who refused to back down on safety issues….

As the Seattle Times described, the problems extended beyond the 737 Max MCAS software shortcomings; indeed, none of the incidents in the story relate to it.

In 2004, the FAA changed its system for front-line supervision of airline certification from having the FAA select airline certification employees who reported directly to the FAA to having airline employees responsible for FAA certification report to airline management and have their reports filtered through them (the FAA attempted to maintain that the certification employees could provide their recommendations directly to the agency, but the Seattle Times obtained policy manuals that stated otherwise).

Mind you, the Seattle Times was not alone in depicting the FAA as captured by Boeing. On Monday, the Post and Courier reported about the South Carolina plant that produced 787s found with tools rattling inside that Boeing SC lets mechanics inspect their own work, leading to repeated mistakes, workers say. These mechanic certifications would never have been kosher if the FAA were vigilant. Similarly, Reuters described how Boeing weakened another safety check, that of pilot input.

One of the objectives for creating this panel was to restore confidence in Boeing and the FAA, but that was always going to be a tall order, particularly after more bad news about various 737 Max systems and Boeing being less than forthcoming with its customers and regulators emerged. From the Wall Street Journal:

As part of roughly a dozen findings, these government and industry officials said, the task force is poised to call out the Federal Aviation Administration for what it describes as a lack of clarity and transparency in the way the FAA delegated authority to the plane maker to assess the safety of certain flight-control features. The upshot, according to some of these people, is that essential design changes didn’t receive adequate FAA attention.

The report, these officials said, also is expected to fault the agency for what it describes as inadequate data sharing with foreign authorities during its original certification of the MAX two years ago, along with relying on mistaken industrywide assumptions about how average pilots would react to certain flight-control emergencies….

The FAA has stressed that the advisory group doesn’t have veto power over modifications to MCAS.

But the report could influence changes to traditional engineering principles determining the safety of new aircraft models. Certification of software controlling increasingly interconnected and automated onboard systems “is a whole new ballgame requiring new approaches,” according to a senior industry safety expert who has discussed the report with regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.

If the FAA thinks it can keep this genie the bottle, it is naive. The foreign regulators represented on the task force, including from China and the EU, have ready access to the international business press. And there will also be an embarrassing fact on the ground, that the FAA, which was last to ground the 737 Max, will be the first to let it fly again, and potentially by not requiring safety protections that other regulators will insist on. For instance, the Journal reports that Canadian authorities expect to require additional simulator training for 737 Max pilots. Recall that Boeing’s biggest 737 Max customer, Southwest Airlines, was so resistant to the cost of additional simulator training that it put a penalty clause into its contract if wound up being necessary.

It’s a given that the FAA will be unable to regain its former stature and that all of its certifications of major aircraft will now be second guessed subject to further review by major foreign regulators. That in turn will impose costs on Boeing, of changing its certification process from needing to placate only the FAA to having to appease potentially multiple parties. For instance, the EU regulator is poised to raise the bar on the 737 Max:

Patrick Ky, head of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, told the European Parliament earlier this month, “It’s very likely that international authorities will want a second opinion” on any FAA decision to lift the grounding.

Even after EASA gives the green light, agency officials are expected to push for significant additional safety enhancements to the fleet. Most prominently, EASA has proposed to eventually add to the MAX a third fully functional angle-of-attack sensor—which effectively measures how far the plane’s nose is pointed up or down—underscoring the controversy expected to swirl around the plane for the foreseeable future.

A monopoly is a precious thing to have. Too bad Boeing failed to appreciate that in its zeal for profits. If the manufacturer winds up facing different demands in different regulatory markets, it will have created more complexity for itself. Can it afford not to manufacture to the highest common denominator, say by making an FAA-only approved bird for Southwest and trying to talk American into buying FAA-only approved versions for domestic use only? It’s hard to see how Boeing hasn’t gotten itself in the position of being at a major competitive disadvantage by virtue of having compromised the FAA so severely as to have undercut safety.

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  1. kimyo

    Boeing Foresees Return Of The 737 MAX In November – But Not Everywhere

    Even if Boeing finds solutions that international regulators can finally accept, their implementation will take additional months. The AoA sensor and trim wheel issues will likely require hardware changes to the 600 or so existing MAX airplanes. The demand for simulator training will further delay the ungrounding of the plane. There are only some two dozen 737 MAX simulators in this world and thousands of pilots who will need to pass through them.

    has boeing developed a plan to correct the trim wheel issue on the 787max? i haven’t seen a single statement from them on how they plan to fix this problem. is it possible they think they can get the faa to re-certify without addressing it?

    1. marku52

      Don’t forget that the smaller trim wheels are in the NG as well. any change to fix the wheels ripples across more planes than just the Max

      1. Eschum

        Granted, including the 737NG’s in a trimwheel-modification would be more expensive. Thousands of extra planes to fix.
        But would that be a reason not to fix?

  2. divadab

    The self-inflicted wound caused by systematic greed and arrogance – corruption, in other words. Boeing is reaping the wages of taking 100% of their profits to support the stock price through stock buybacks and deliberately under-investing in their business. Their brains have been taken over by a parasitic financial system that profits by wrecking healthy businesses.

    It’s not only Boeing – the rot is general and it is terrible to see the destruction of American productive capacity by a parasitic finance sector.

    1. Dirk77

      +1 Shareholder Value is indeed the worst idea in the world. That Boeing’s biggest stockholder, Vanguard, is unable to cleanup Boeing’s operations makes perfect sense. I mean vanguards expertise is making money, not building anything. Those skills are completely different.

      1. Noel Nospamington

        Shareholder value does what it intended to do, which is to maximise stock value in the short term, even if it significantly cuts value in the long term.

        By that measure allowing Boeing to take over the FAA and self-certify the 737-MAX was a big success, because of short term maximization of stock value that resulted. It is now someone else’s problem regarding any long term harm.

  3. Dirk77

    Having worked at Boeing and the FAA, this report is very welcome. One thing: federal hiring practices in a way lock out good people from working there. Very often the fed managing some project has only a tenuous grasp is what is going on. But has the job bc they were hired in young and cheap, which is what agencies do with reduced budgets. That and job postings very often stating that they are open only to current feds says it all. So deferring to the airline to “self-certify” would be a welcome relief to feds in many cases. At this point, I doubt the number of their “sharpest and best intended” engineers is very high. If you want better oversight, then increase the number and quality of feds by making it easier to hire, and decrease the number of contractors.

    1. Arthur Dent

      I deal with federal and state regulators (not airplane) all the time. Very well meaning people, but in many cases are utterly unqualified to do the technical work. So it works well when they stick to the policy issues and stay out of the technical details. However, we have Professional Engineers and other licensed professionals signing off on the engineering documents per state law. You can look at the design documents and the construction certification and there is a name and stamp of the responsible individual.

      The licensing laws clearly state that the purpose of licensing is to hold public health and safety paramount.This is completely missing in the American industrial sector due to the industrial exemptions in the professional engineering licensing laws. Ultimately, there is nobody technically responsible for a plane or a car who has to certify that they are making the public safe and healthy. Instead, the FAA and others do that. Federal agencies and the insurance institute test cars and give safety ratings. Lawyers sue companies for defects which also helps enforce safety.

    2. XXYY

      One maxim we see illustrated here and elsewhere is this: Trust takes years to earn, but can be lost overnight.

      Boeing management and the FAA, having lost the trust of most people in the world through their actions lately, seem to nevertheless think it will be a simple matter to return to the former status quo. It seems as likely, or perhaps more likely, that they will never be able to return to the former status quo. They have been revealed as poseurs and imposters, cheerfully risking (and sometimes losing) their customers’ lives so they can buy back more stock.

      This image will be (rightfully) hard for them to shake.

      1. notabanker

        So people are going to quit their jobs rather than fly on Boeing planes? Joe and Marge Six-Pack are going to choose flights not based on what they can afford but based on what make of plane they are flying on? As if the airlines will even tell them in advance?

        There are close to zero consequences to Boeing and FAA management. Click on the link to the Purdue Sacklers debacle. The biggest inconvenience will be paying the lawyers.

        1. d

          Last time flew..last month did tell you in advance if you asked what plane the flight was on, since you and I aren’t Boeings customers, the airlines are, now if the airlines start loosing passengers, that will impact Boeing. Also unlike Slacker, where unless you were a doctor, you can’t make informed choice. Now one might suggest that airlines might not show what plane is used for the flight, but that just drive passengers away. And the real problem at the FAA was created not by their management, but by Congress. While not guaranteed passengers might stop flying unless its for work, which might be easy today

  4. Tomonthebeach

    FAA & Boeing: It’s deja vu all over again.

    From 1992 to 1999 I worked for the FAA running one of their labs in OKC. My role, among other things, was to provide data to the Administrator on employee attitudes, business practice changes, and policy impact on morale and safety. Back then, likely as now, it was a common complaint heard from FAA execs about the conflict of interest of having to be both an aviation safety regulatory agency and having to promote aviation. Congress seemed fine with that – apparently still is. There is FAA pork in nearly every Congressional district (think airports for example). Boeing is the latest example of how mission conflict is not serving the aviation industry or public safety. With its headquarters within walking distance of Capitol Hill, aviation lobbyists do not even get much exercise shuttling.

    The 1996 Valuejet crash into the Florida swamps shows how far back the mission conflict problem has persisted. Valuejet was a startup airline that was touted as more profitable than all the others. It achieved that notoriety by flying through every FAA maintenance loophole they could find to cut maintenance costs. When FAA started clamping down, Senate Majority Leader Daschle scolded FAA for not being on the cutting edge of industry innovation. The message was clear – leave Valuejet alone. That was a hard message to ignore given that Daschle’s wife Linda was serving as Deputy FAA Administrator (the #2 position) – a clear conflict of interest with the role of her spouse – a fact not lost on Administrator Hinson (the #1 position). Rather than use the disaster as an opportunity to revisit FAA mission conflict, Clinton tossed Administrator Hinson into the volcano of public outcry and put Daschle in charge. Nothing happened then, and it looks like Boeing might follow Valuejet into the aviation graveyard.

  5. Mike

    Nothin’ like regulatory capture. Along with financialized manufacturing, the cheap & profitable will outdo the costly careful every time. Few businesses are run today with the moral outlook of some early industrialists (not enough of them, but still present) who, through zany Protestant guilt, cared for their reputations enough to not make murderous product, knowing how the results would play both here and in Heaven. Today we have PR and government propaganda to smear the doubters, free the toxic, and let loose toxins.

    From food to clothing, drugs to hospitals, self-propelled skateboards to aircraft, pesticides to pollution, even services as day care & education, it is time to call the minions of manufactured madness to account. Dare we say “Free government from Murder Inc.”?

  6. VietnamVet

    This is an excellent summary of the untenable situation that Boeing and the Federal Government have gotten themselves into. In their rush to get richer the Elite ignored the fact that monopolies and regulatory capture are always dangerously corrupt. This is not an isolated case. FDA allows importation of uninspected stock pharmaceutical chemicals from China. Insulin is unaffordable for the lower classes. Diseases are spreading through homeless encampments. EPA approved new uses of environmentally toxic nicotinoid insecticide, sulfoxaflor. DOD sold hundreds of billions of dollars of armaments to Saudi Arabia that were useless to protect the oil supply.

    The Powers-that-be thought that they would be a hegemon forever. But, Joe Biden’s green light for the Ukraine Army’s attack against breakaway Donbass region on Russia’s border restarted the Cold War allying Russia with China and Iran. This is a multi-polar world again. Brexit and Donald Trump’s Presidency are the Empire’s death throes.

  7. RBHoughton

    NC readers know what the problem is as two comments above indicate clearly. Isn’t the FAA ashamed to keep conniving with the money and permitting dangerous planes to fly?

    Boeing just got a WTO ruling against Airbus. It seems that one rogue produces others. Time to clean the stable and remove the money addiction from safety regulation

  8. The Rev Kev

    I think that I can see an interesting situation developing next year. So people will be boarding a plane, say with Southwest Airlines, when they will hear the following announcement over the speakers-

    “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. On behalf of myself and the entire crew, welcome aboard Southwest Airlines flight WN 861, non-stop service from Houston to New York. Our flight time will be of 4 hours and 30 minutes. We will be flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet at a ground speed of approximately 590 miles per hour.

    We are pleased to announce that you have now boarded the first Boeing 737 MAX that has been cleared to once again fly by the FAA as being completely safe. For those passengers flying on to any other country, we regret to announce that you will have to change planes at New York as no other country in the world has cleared this plane as being safe to fly in their airspace and insurance companies there are unwilling to issue insurance cover for them in any case.

    So please sit back and enjoy your trip with us. Cabin Crew, please bolt the cabin doors and prepare for gate departure.”

  9. Marshall Auerback

    I am sure Airbus is finding it heart to stop wetting themselves. Nothing like watching your main competitor destroying itself unaided.

  10. Mike G

    Boeing culture is rotten to the core.
    The Air Force has rejected delivery of KC-46 tanker/cargo aircraft for finding employee trash, loose screws and even tools inside the aircraft. This is not some cutting-edge high tech, just sloppy and careless work on an airframe that has been around since the 80s. Right now the planes are banned from carrying passengers or cargo because cargo locks have become unlocked in flight — potentially fatal if heavy cargo breaks loose.

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