A decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to control inspections of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft is necessary for restoring credibility to the U.S. regulatory system. Passengers, airlines and governments throughout the world must have confidence in that system in order for the iconic aerospace company to retain its standing in the industry.
Last week, FAA regulators informed Boeing executives that they will be in charge of ensuring that the 737 Max is worthy to fly. The plane has been grounded since March, following crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed a total of 346 people.
“The FAA has determined that the public interest and safety in air commerce require that the FAA retain authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all 737 Max airplanes,” FAA officials wrote in a letter to Boeing. “The FAA will retain such authority until the agency is confident that, at a minimum, Boeing has fully functional quality control and verification processes in place.”
In the short term, that is bad news for Boeing officials, who repeatedly have said they hope to have approval for the 737 Max by the end of the year. FAA oversight, which might mean inspections of each plane, will delay the return of the 737 Max.
But in the long run it is good news for restoring integrity to the U.S. aerospace industry and, therefore, Boeing. Following the crashes and the grounding of the plane, it was revealed that federal regulators gave the company excessive leeway in approving inspections of the aircraft. Whether or not that contributed to the crashes, it diminished the reputation of American manufacturing.
Boeing has continued producing the 737 Max, storing completed planes at airfields throughout the state. Meanwhile, the company has been working to fix the troublesome Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which is believed to have played a role in the Indonesian and Ethiopian crashes. But the New York Times recently reported on emails from an official at Transport Canada Civil Aviation that questioned the fixes, referring to them as “a band-aid” and saying the MCAS adds “too much complexity.”
The FAA decision to retain authority over authorization of the 737 Max follows questioning from Congress regarding the issue. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has been among the most outspoken critics of a regulatory system that has been revealed to be too deferential to manufacturers.
Cantwell is pushing for hearings with FAA officials and is seeking legislation requiring that recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board be implemented. Those recommendations include a thorough analysis of how pilots may respond to unexpected events when operating complex systems such as the MCAS.
Legislative changes are needed to ensure the safety and confidence of the public, both in the United States and abroad. And they are needed to help Boeing remain a reliable name in aviation.
That status is crucial to both the company and the rest of the state, with Boeing being an important economic engine and a symbol of Washington’s technological expertise. Retaining that position requires that solutions be approached with caution and a focus on safety, even at the expense of expediency.
When shortcuts are taken, it creates vulnerabilities that endanger the entire system of airplane manufacturing and approval. Strict oversight from the FAA will demonstrate that the industry has learned valuable lessons.