Congressional hearings on Boeing and the 737 MAX this week didn’t just focus on Boeing’s failures but brought stern criticism of the FAA’s certification process and the decisions that led to MCAS, its reliance on a single Angle of Attack sensor, and not to train pilots on the design.
Modern aircraft are incredibly safe. We rely on aircraft to fly themselves, and expect them to do so safely. The decision to risk critical failure on a single data source was a mistake, and Boeing has to own that.
I will feel safe flying the Boeing 737 MAX. The aircraft manufacturer is making all of the changes insisted upon by international regulatory agencies to re-certify the aircraft. And even without those changes I’m confident that the pilots of American, United, and Southwest will have “stab trim cutout switches” as a memory item.
The mistakes that got us here were Boeing’s alone. Criticisms of the FAA for allowing the planemaker to do much of the work to self-certify the plane miss the mark.
- Self-certification dates to 1956. It is not part of a deregulatory push. It’s a system that has worked remarkably well.
- The FAA has approximately 400 engineers to work on aircraft certification. Boeing has 45,000 engineers. The FAA cannot possibly do all of the work themselves and we wouldn’t want to shift the best engineering minds away from creating product to oversight.
Delegation isn’t a strictly-U.S. practice, or one which was limited to the MAX. If the FAA were charged with making the initial call, rather than reviewing Boeing’s, on whether MCAS should have been designed differently or disclosed differently it’s not clear they’d have behaved differently.
It’s easy to say a safety agency is at fault whenever a safety issue arises. That’s what makes safety regulators so cautious. They get faulted for any mistake but don’t get lauded for the benefits of moving quickly.
Legislators who are grandstanding on the delegation issue should start with acknowledging it is authorized by legislation and that critics never took steps to curtail the practice. (Doesn’t that make it the fault of legislators, not the fAA?)
The process has largely worked, too, and what we’re now discussing are incidents where it’s reasonable to question and improve the process. Pointing fingers at the FAA at this point seems misplaced.