More than a year into the grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX fleet, regulators — like the manufacturer — are still attempting to defend the indefensible.
The business and regulatory failures that led to the deaths of 346 people in two crashes continue to be papered over, including in a Federal Aviation Administration report released Tuesday.
The report shows how badly the FAA lost its way in ensuring safety. The agency needs a thorough overhaul of the safety review process that enabled the 737 MAX to take flight with full federal certification, yet the report maps out an opposite agenda. It says the FAA will continue to delegate to Boeing detailed safety reviews of new aircraft and mechanism “as an effective and efficient method to enhance safety.”
Extensive reporting by The Seattle Times and official investigations of the MAX crashes have shown that delegation of safety reviews to the company itself is too risky to continue in the same form. The flying public needs impartial expert analysis of air safety mechanisms. Allowing Boeing’s in-house engineers to conduct the majority of certification testing opens the door to shortcuts and manipulation.
This concern cuts deeper than a theoretical conflict of interest.
When Boeing was rushing to complete the 737 MAX safety approvals, engineers said they encountered extensive improper pressure from company managers to disregard safety concerns and meet production schedules on the cheap, according to Seattle Times reporting. FAA officials likewise reported feeling pressure to cede increased responsibility to Boeing.
That’s a textbook example of a broken system. The FAA has a foundational role in America’s — and the world’s — air safety. Its regulatory reach cannot be significantly reduced without potentially dire consequences.
Boeing has strayed far from its reign as the standard-bearer for safe, trustworthy airplanes. The company cannot be trusted with the heavy burdens of reviewing its own work as long as quick profits and boosting stock valuation are central to its ethos.
As the report notes, the FAA has delegated certain reviews to manufacturers including Boeing for decades. With proper limits and accountability, the procedure can create efficiencies with cutting-edge private-sector engineers dealing straight with regulators. That means curtailing interference from managers on either side.
But that’s not what the FAA has embraced. The agency’s 2017 blueprint for transforming certification calls for empowering companies to self-police — in that report’s phrasing, “relying less on the numerous, prescriptive interactions that can lead to project delays.”
This abdication is the wrong path for safety and stability in an essential sector of the economy. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and other Congressional leaders are right to push for stronger safety processes. The human and business costs of encouraging slipshod safety practices amount to disasters.
The long-term benefit to Boeing and the flying public of rigorous safety standards easily justifies the investment of time and resources. Boeing and the FAA each need to move toward that goal, instead of backing away.