Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
Boeing Co. expects to soon have a software fix to the problem believed to have caused two of its 737 Max planes to plunge into deadly nose-down crashes in the past five months.
But beyond solving the software glitch, troubling questions remain about the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to regulate safety of the airline manufacturers. At issue is the FAA’s practice of relying on aircraft makers to essentially certify their own planes for flight.
Currently, airline manufacturers perform the safety tests and inspections, while the FAA oversees their work. During a Senate hearing this week, FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell defended a program that allows manufacturers to certify their own products, telling lawmakers it has resulted in safe aircraft designs.
The program — known as Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) — saves time and money: Elwell said the agency would need 10,000 more employees and an additional $1.8 billion a year to complete the work now done by designated airline industry employees.
But Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said at the hearing that leaving the airlines in charge of safety puts “the fox in charge of the henhouse,” and promised to introduce legislation to change the system. Blumenthal said the FAA’s decision to do safety on the cheap is “neither safe nor cheap.”
Outsourcing the safety certification to the airline manufacturers stretches back decades. During that time, the safety record of Boeing and Airbus — the two dominant airline makers — has been strong. But questions have been raised repeatedly about the cozy relationship between the FAA and the airline manufacturers.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general released an audit in 2011 that flagged the FAA’s oversight of the ODA program in which the manufacturers handled 90 percent of the safety certifications. The audit said the FAA needed to improve its oversight, including better monitoring and training of agency workers.
In 2012, the Transportation Department’s watchdog found FAA employees complained their managers had “too close a relationship with Boeing officials,” and that agency bosses did not always back efforts to hold the manufacturers accountable.
A 2015 audit by the inspector general found the FAA lacked adequate staffing to oversee the ODA program.
In the case of the 737 Max planes, Boeing rushed to develop a fuel-efficient jet to compete with a new Airbus model announced in 2010. An engineer who worked on the 737 Max project told the New York Times the timeline to develop the plane was “extremely compressed,” adding “it was go, go, go.” The Seattle Times reported Boeing’s original safety analysis for a new flight control system on the Max 737 contained crucial flaws.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao requested the inspector general conduct an audit to see how the 737 Max was certified. Federal prosecutors also are investigating the plane’s development.
The FAA was slow to ground the 737 Max after the two crashes, following the lead of other countries and raising questions about pressure from Boeing. Going forward, the FAA must take steps to ensure independence and safety are its top priorities.