Experts’ review defends FAA certification process that approved 737 MAX

aircraft lined up on taxiway

Changes need to be made, but the process the Federal Aviation Administration uses to certify aircraft — including the grounded Boeing 737 MAX — is effective and a significant contributor to the world’s safest aviation system, according to a panel of outside safety experts.

In a report that is sure to rile Boeing (NYSE: BA) and FAA critics and the families of the 346 people who died in two fatal MAX accidents, the Special Committee to Review the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Certification Process argued against any actions that would “systematically dismantle” the FAA’s current certification system and its use of delegated authority.

Organization designation authorization, or ODA, has come under a great deal of scrutiny since the two MAX crashes. Under ODA, the FAA can delegate certain certification responsibilities back to a manufacturer. Critics contend that ODA opens up potential conflicts of interest and that in the case of the MAX, the FAA failed to effectively oversee Boeing.

The committee, which was established by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in April, said, “Any radical changes to this system could undermine the collaboration and expertise that undergird the current certification system, jeopardizing the remarkable level of safety that has been attained in recent decades.”

But attempts to change the system are likely. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said Thursday that his committee’s investigation has revealed multiple points at which the certification process failed and that he intends to propose legislative fixes.

“I want to be very clear: 346 people died because the system failed,” DeFazio said. “Despite the wishes of industry, it would be the height of irresponsibility to leave the ODA system as is and just hope for the best the next time. Not addressing the failures head-on would be a grave mistake and that will not happen on my watch.”

DeFazio has previously said reforms need to include a larger number of inspectors, mostly paid for by the aerospace industry, and a transparent process for allowing employees to raise safety concerns within an organization.

Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the House T&I Committee, said the report “clearly dispels the narrative that our aviation certification system is broken and must be completely rebuilt in the wake of the two 737 MAX accidents.”

While finding the certification process to be effective, the special committee also said that reforms must be adopted to help the system become better at identifying and mitigating risk and that some assumptions used to certify aircraft are outdated.

The five-person committee made 10 key findings and related recommendations. One was that the FAA should require manufacturers to implement safety management systems. Currently in the U.S., only large scheduled passenger and cargo carriers are required to have an SMS, which is a systematic approach to managing safety. The U.S. lags behind a number of other countries in requiring SMS.

Another set of recommendations focused on the FAA workforce, proper workforce planning, the need to aggressively recruit young people into the organization and make sure people with the right range of skills occupy safety-critical jobs.

The FAA also should acknowledge the international profile of airlines that fly U.S.-made aircraft and implement necessary changes in the certification system “to consider differences in operations, training and oversight” in other countries, the committee said. The agency also should use its resources to foster higher international safety standards and practices for aircraft certification, operations and maintenance.

“The agency will carefully consider the committee’s work, along with the recommendations identified in various investigative reports and other analyses, as we take steps to enhance our aircraft certification processes,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said.