The United States House of Representatives voted to approve changes to the way that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certifies commercial aircraft. In the bipartisan bill, the lawmakers aim to improve accountability, oversight and safety, following the two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes that claimed the lives of 346 people.
The bill called the Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act was first introduced by the House Transport and Infrastructure Committee on September 28, 2020, and was approved by the committee two days later. The 25-point act would make sweeping changes to the way that aircraft certification is carried out in the United States, with particular attention to the FAA’s processes. It passed the house on November 17, 2020.
“I’m proud we are taking this important step today to fix the broken system that allowed Boeing to put profits over safety and push a flawed airplane through the regulatory process, ultimately leading to the deaths of 346 innocent people,” stated the chairman of the committee Peter DeFazio.
Safety changes and emphasis on human factors
In order to improve safety, the bill would require the FAA to issue regulations for type and production certificate holders to incorporate Safety Management Systems (SMS) in their processes. The SMS would allow employees of aerospace manufacturers to report safety or ethical concerns that could affect safety confidentially.
Another point in the bill would require manufacturers to disclose safety-critical information to the FAA, “including information regarding systems that manipulate flight controls without direct pilot input or commands, correct adverse handling qualities, or compensate for unstable aerodynamic properties, as well as other systems whose failure or erroneous activation would present a risk-rated hazardous or catastrophic.” Seemingly, this aims to eliminate the risk of such systems as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that is present on the Boeing 737 MAX. At first, the flight manuals of the aircraft excluded information about the MCAS, which proved to be fatal in Lion Air flight JT610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302.
The new bill would prohibit the FAA from issuing a type certificate for a new aircraft design unless the cockpit has a centralized crew alerting system that would only help the pilots differentiate different warnings on the aircraft. Furthermore, the FAA’s certification process would have to “support the better integration of human factors and system safety assessments of aircraft flight deck and flight control systems,” according to the act. In addition, the administration would have to develop its own human factors education program to better understand various safety factors, including how modern cockpit systems affect human performance.
Training requirements would also be looked at, as the FAA would now have to independently review what kind of training program a manufacturer has designed for an aircraft. Aircraft builders would be prohibited from making certain promises to airlines about the training requirements. Seemingly, this part of the bill specifically targets the deal that Boeing and Southwest Airlines (LUV) had made when the low-cost carrier ordered the 737 MAX: if simulator training was needed, the manufacturer would pay $1 million per delivered aircraft, covering 280 ordered units.
An expert safety review of the FAA and manufacturers’ assumptions would be mandated. When designing and certifying safety systems, both parties would have to take into account “the global nature of the marketplace and varying pilot training programs worldwide,” including the fact that the FAA would have to “exercise leadership in setting global standards to improve airline pilot training and qualifications.
Oversight and designation
Not only would the bill prompt to change the way safety and human factors are considered, but also the current system of oversight and designation, another controversial topic during the Boeing 737 MAX crisis.
First things first, an independent review panel, comprised of various representatives across the aviation industry, would review Boeing’s organization designation authorization (ODA) processes, including safety culture and the ability to perform functions, delegated upon the manufacturer by the FAA. Reports throughout the saga criticized and looked into how the certifying authority delegated more and more to Boeing, including the fact that undue pressure was identified on ODA employees.
“Authorizes the FAA Administrator to limit, suspend, or terminate Boeing’s ODA if the Administrator deems it necessary based on the review panel’s findings.”
The ODA, which was officially enacted into law under the VISION 100—CENTURY OF AVIATION REAUTHORIZATION act in 2003, delegated more of the certification work to the manufacturer of the part or the aircraft itself. Budget constraints forced the FAA to delegate more of the work for aerospace companies. The newly-enacted bill looks to change that, as $27 million would be given to the administration throughout 2021 and 2023 each year in order to “recruit and retain engineers, safety inspectors, human factors specialists, software and cybersecurity experts, and other qualified technical experts who perform duties related to the certification,” of various aerospace products.
Design of features on an aircraft that is novel or unusual, would have to be certified by the FAA, rather than an ODA-delegated engineer. If the certifying authority determined it to be a routine task, the certification task could once again be delegated to ODA personnel.
New ODA personnel, going forward, would have to be approved by the FAA. Each and every member of Boeing’s ODA unit would be reviewed to ensure that engineers representing the company meet the qualifications set out by the administration. The FAA would have the ability to revoke the authorization of an ODA member “at any time, for any reason.”
If an individual, employed with an ODA holding company, harassed an ODA unit member, a civil penalty would follow, stated the bill. To ensure that the FAA had enough resources to review its ODA system, the bill would grant $3 million each year through 2021-2023 to the agency.
All in all, the bill would also improve the accountability of the FAA. Whistleblower protections would be extended to ODA members as well. A new voluntary safety program, designed for FAA employees, would be established in order to identify any potential safety issues or concerns.
ODA holding companies would be reviewed every seven years. The review would include an assessment of the SMS and the voluntary safety program. The FAA would report to Congress on its progress to implement recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR), and establish an internal Executive Committee to ensure the use and effectiveness of its compliance program.
A cooling-off period would be imposed upon future or former FAA employees. If a new employee of the agency joined it, it could not oversee its former employee for a year. If a former employee of the FAA joined a manufacturer, they could not represent their employer for two years in front of the certifying authority.
On November 18, 2020, the FAA un-grounded the Boeing 737 MAX following 20 months of grounding, following the two fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. While the governmental agency cleared the aircraft to fly, it has quite the road ahead before it can fly with airlines following 20 months of hibernation.