For more than six decades, the Federal Aviation Administration has relied on employees of airplane manufacturers to do government-required safety inspections as planes are being designed or assembled. But critics say the system, dubbed the “designee program,” is too cozy as company employees do work for an agency charged with keeping the skies safe while being paid by an industry that the FAA is regulating.
The FAA’s oversight duties are coming under greater scrutiny after deadly crashes involving Boeing 737 Max jets operated by airlines in Ethiopia and Indonesia, killing a total of 346 people. The U.S. was nearly alone in allowing the planes to keep flying until it relented on Wednesday after getting satellite evidence showing the crashes may be linked.
The FAA concedes that it doesn’t have resources to keep up with a growing aviation industry, and experts say it lacks the personnel to inspect every component, especially those made in other countries. But the agency says the designee program’s results speak for themselves. The U.S. has the safest skies in the world. Until April of last year, U.S. passenger airlines had not had a fatality since 2009, while carrying several billion passengers.
But safety experts say it’s time to look into the agency’s relationship with Boeing, based in Chicago. The FAA’s ties to the company were revealed when Boeing and the agency released similar messages shortly after the Indonesian airliner crashed in October and again this week, when the FAA announced that Boeing would upgrade the Max’s flight-control software, said Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector general.
With the messages, the FAA “revealed that they were just parroting what Boeing told them,” she said.
The agency needs more people with technical skills to adequately monitor a company that makes machines as sophisticated as today’s jets, she said, contending that it didn’t understand the Max’s flight-control computer program.
“The FAA readily states they don’t understand the four million lines of code and the 150 computers,” Schiavo said. “What they do is see that Boeing followed the process, they checked the FAA boxes. The public thinks the FAA has more involvement.”
Indeed, the agency’s own website says that employees of manufacturers can approve design changes and aircraft repairs. “Using designees for routine certification tasks allows the FAA to focus its limited resources on safety critical certification issues,” it says.
A Boeing spokesman said company employees get regular training and oversight from the FAA.
The FAA requirements in the designee program “ensure that Boeing employees serving in this capacity act independently on behalf of the FAA,” he said.
Congress will examine the relationship between Boeing and the FAA. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he would hold hearings on the FAA’s process for approving the planes.
The agency’s practice of delegating certification processes has come under scrutiny before. In a 1993 report, the Government Accountability Office warned that the FAA was falling behind the industry in technical competence because of lack of training and delegation of tasks to the manufacturers. The report said 95% of certification work for the Boeing 747-400 jetliner was delegated to the manufacturer in 1989. By comparison, 70% to 75 % of that work was done by the FAA in the early 1980s, the report said.
In a separate report in 2005, the GAO said the FAA had no requirements for evaluating its designated certification workers within the industry. It also had incomplete records about safety violations that occurred during the inspection process.
FAA designees have also run afoul of the law. Last February, Edward Carl Fernandez, an FAA-designated representative in Florida, pleaded guilty to falsely certifying the airworthiness of aviation parts. Between 2010 and 2013, prosecutors said, Fernandez would sign off on parts from an aviation repair company in exchange for bribes.