The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) close relationship with the industry it regulates is under increased scrutiny following two Boeing 737 Max commercial jet crashes that killed 346 people within the last six months.
Of particular concern is an FAA program, begun nearly 15 years ago, under which companies, including Boeing, self-certify components of their aircraft designs with limited FAA oversight.
In hearings Wednesday, facing questions from Senators about oversight of the certification of the 737 Max and the FAA’s relationship with Boeing, top Transportation Department officials by turns defended and pledged to closely examine the agency’s system for certifying aircraft safety.
In written testimony, Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell told a Senate panel on aviation and space that under its current certification system, “the FAA retains strict oversight authority” over aircraft certification, but that “we know that our oversight approach needs to evolve to ensure that the FAA remains the global leader in achieving aviation safety.”
Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III, whose office announced earlier Wednesday it had launched an investigation into the certification of the 737 Max, said in prepared remarks that the “FAA plans to introduce a new process that represents a significant change in its oversight approach” by the end of July of this year.
Indeed, in the coming months, Congress and an FAA-convened expert panel will also be examining aspects of the FAA’s current certification system and whether it has increased safety risks.
Since it was formed over 60 years ago, the FAA has delegated some safety certification responsibilities to the aviation industry and to individuals. But in 2005, the FAA began delegating even more responsibility to industry and individuals as part of a plan dubbed ODA, or the “Organizational Designation Authorization” program.
Under this program, companies now play a larger role in approving the airworthiness—and thus the safety—of their own aircraft. As the Transportation Department’s Inspector General reported in 2015, “One aircraft manufacturer approved about 90 percent of the design decision s for all of its own aircraft.” For its part, Congress has, as The New York Times put it, “repeatedly endorsed” industry self-regulation on the grounds that it reduces costs to the federal government and streamlines the certification process for companies.
But the recent Boeing crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia have sparked increased Congressional scrutiny of the ODA program, which follows years’ worth of watchdog reports pointing out problems and risks stemming from the program. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote in a recent letter to the FAA that the program has “effectively left the fox guarding the henhouse.” (end of excerpt)
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