One of the things many people have been shocked to learn, in the aftermath of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX crash, is that the FAA delegates much of the certification process to the aircraft manufacturer.
People are shocked, shocked, that a company would be able to ‘self-certify’ and suggest this is some sort of dereliction of duty when nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve pointed out that it’s simply not possible for the FAA or any civil aeronautics agency to have the expertise necessary to do it themselves. In fact it’s been FAA practice since 1956 and aircraft and airlines have become incredibly safe – increasingly so – during this time.
There cannot possibly be enough FAA engineers to learn, supervise, and test everything. And they cannot possibly have sufficient expertise in the technology to do so. First, compare numbers:
1100 employees — 400 are dedicated to administrative and management personnel. So roughly 700 individuals are responsible for ALL design approvals, production & continued airworthiness of everything that flies and of that, maybe 400 are engineers. Well under 100 of those engineers are assigned directly to Boeing.
In contrast Boeing employs 45,000 engineers.
Delegation by the way isn’t limited to the United States or to the 737 MAX. We don’t yet know what went wrong in the certification process, just as we don’t yet know exactly what went wrong in the Ethiopian and Lion Air tragedies.
Certainly design elements of the 737 MAX led to software improvements to enhance the safety of the aircraft, but which are vulnerable to faulty Angle of Attack readings. And there are reports that risk created by such an error was understated during the certification process. We certainly have no reason to believe that the FAA could have done a better job on this score.
Ultimately aviation is made increasingly safe by careful determination of the probably cause of each and every incident, and making changes to procedures and technology based on that learning. When something goes wrong it’s because the situation hasn’t ever happened before, or because someone fails to follow procedure. The standardization of processes, and improvement in processes, makes air travel remarkably safe.
And part of this very process has been the FAA’s supervised delegation system, and similar programs around the world.
In any case, legislators who are grandstanding on the delegation issue should at a minimum reveal that it’s authorized by legislation and they haven’t ever previously taken steps to curtail the practice. What that would reveal is that the process has worked, that we’re now investigating incidents where it’s reasonable to question (and improve) the process, but pointing fingers at the FAA at this point seems misplaced.