The FAA Is Not to Blame for Letting Boeing Self-Certify the 737 MAX

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It’s not as though Boeing got away with making an unsafe aircraft and made billions on risking passenger safety. This has cost Boeing an incredible amount of money.

    Airlines have powerful economic incentives to make safe aircraft.

  2. I agree with Gary. His statement: “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” is spot on.

  3. I disagree that the FAA does not own any of this problem. Yes, Boeing is responsible for what occurred. Also true is that the FAA was unable to oversee the Max changes. The FAA does not need 1:1 engineers with the manufacturers – don’t know the right ratio. Government funding, as passed by Congress, sets the funds they work with. A combination of additional funds with hires that have the technical know how should allow for oversight at a reasonable level. The FAA needs more engineers then they have. Boeing is at fault for a bad design and unacceptable communication. The FAA is at fault for not having an organization capable of detecting these problems.

  4. David, spot on. One general can command millions of soldiers, but he is responsible for processes and decisions. It would be a lame excuse for his to say, “What could I do? I was just one person.”

  5. More parroting industry lies (Gary, how much do you charge?). Self-certification dates from the Wright Brothers; in 1956 the FAA didn’t even exist, but was set up in 1958 as a direct result of a crash in 1956 where a for-then record number of people died, exposing the fallacy of self-certification.

    A SMALL number of engineers REVIEWING what a large army of engineers in industry comes up with is what the FAA is supposed to do. It’s like a QA department. But it’s now simply rubber-stamping, a colossal failure of its mission and of the trust of the American public (and all the other global certification authorities)

  6. “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.”

    Like the TSA?

  7. This line of thinking *might* have been acceptable until the crash of the Lion Air 737MAX. After that it was completely the FAA’s fault for not immediately focusing on what Boeing did/said during the certification process. They should have been MUCH more aggressive/adversarial towards Boeing. Instead the FAA continued to carry water for Boeing. The most damning evidence that the FAA has failed and is structurally defective is their reaction to the Ethiopian crash. **The FAA was among the VERY LAST agency to ground the 737MAX!** Even to the bitter END the FAA was covering for Boeing! They waited until after China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Singapore, India, Turkey, South Korea, Europe, Canada, and Malaysia had already grounded the 737MAX before they saw fit put safety before Boeing’s reputation!

  8. “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.”

    Not sure the point of this statement. If the FAA knew what it now appears Boeing knew, it absolutely would have behaved differently.

  9. If the FAA is not at fault, then having some other outside group hunt for flaws might be a prudent idea.

  10. Good to counter the misinformation being spread on sites like FT like aviation industry plants (undisclosed but obvious) like fly18725, who resorts to “what-about-ism” to try and criticize Airbus and deflect away from Boeing’s issues

  11. Now QANTAS has been forced to ground several of its newer 737s, after cracks were found in the mechanisms securing the wings to the fuselage. Public confidence in Boeing has hit rock bottom. One wonders if they’ll be getting orders at all until they sort out this culture that places $$$ over lives.

  12. The number of engineers is irrelevant.

    Q. How many engineers does it take to know that connecting MCAS to only one of the error prone AOA indicators is not just unsafe its reckless?

    A. Only one competent one.

    But it worse than that. There were two MAX crashes separated by several months. The FAA failed to prevent smoking hole in the ground No. 2!

    It gets even worse because after smoking hole in the ground No. 2, the FAA was the last agency in the world to realize the MAX had to be grounded to ensure there was no smoking hole in the ground No. 3.

    Gary and OJS’ willingness to ignore the facts on this one is… well you fill in the blank.

    Boeing and the FAA aren’t the only ones in the history of government/private collaborations with blinders on. It took two space shuttle disasters for NASA, its contractors, and yes ultimately Congress to finally realize STS was fatally flawed.

  13. It’s normal FAA granted certification who pass the test rating to any engineers in any levels of any spesifiec job in the field, and sign any point performed, then double checks by FAA approved Inspector to do and sign for specific A/C job and specific A/C design as well.

    But FAA must be well inform, and checked by them self for any design changes and any risk implicationn will be infolved, before production process in production line.

  14. Some degree of self-regulation is useful, sensible and effective in many industries. There is a big BUT: take it too far and you get Fukushima or airplane crashes or — calamities such as London’s Grenfell Tower fire, where cutbacks left developers without oversight for fire safety standards.
    The argument is over how much external regulation is needed, and in an age where the thrust is on lowering tax burdens, poor outcomes are unsurprising.

  15. I posted a test comment above because several others did not go through to Gary’s website. Hopefully this one will too.

    Gary correctly identifies some of the reasons why the FAA should be blamed – the decision process that required installing MCAS, tying MCAS activation to only one of the two AOA indicators which were well known to be susceptible to malfunction, failing to inform airlines and pilots of the existence of MCAS, failing to train pilots to quickly recognize and correct for improper MCAS activation – but then offers the FAA a total pass. Those failures that the FAA approved were more than negligent. They show a reckless and perhaps wilful and wanton disregard for public safety not just mere negligence. As far as I know there is no legislation that lets the FAA off the hook. It may permit the FAA to delegate certain tasks to industry, but the law does not let the FAA abrogate its responsibility.

    What cannot be forgiven is the fact that when Lion Air happened the FAA refused to seriously reevaluate the MAX. The FAA even dismissed warnings and pleas from US pilots. The FAA just bought off on Boeing’s claims. It was too easy to put the blame on pilots and airlines from shithole countries.

    To make matters worse months later there was a second smoking hole in the ground. After that disaster the FAA still claimed there were no problems with the MAX. The FAA was forced to ground the plane because every other agency in the world had done so already. That thinking had nothing to do with delegation or legislation. It was just misplaced hubris and a stubborn refusal to face facts that had become obvious.

    The FAA certified the MAX not Boeing. Apparently the FAA mistakes the delegation of tasks with the abrogation of responsibility.

  16. Sorry, Gary, but I’m with David, Jake, & John! Regulatory Capture is the term. And I blame politicians who don’t like government so when they’re in charge (currently) they don’t care how it works cause if it doesn’t that proves their point. Face it America, we have an corporate oligarchy that won’t pay its fair share and supports mostly repugs who share their distain for the rest of us! 🙁

  17. If I were FAA, I will not certify an additional MCAS system on the 737-max that relied only on one input that might fail or could have an error in it.

  18. i’m glad i’m not the code gate keeper at my software company…we actually expect the developers to adequately test their crap. There’s no way the FAA should be responsible for this.

  19. Perhaps our elected representative in both Houses (& both parties) should share some of the blame by not funding for more FAA inspectors. The lack of accountability by the folks on Capitol Hill has hindered the modernization of US aviation transportation in anything from NextGen to aircraft certification! Just a thought from a 40 year user of the air transportation system.

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