At last, Congress has undone disastrous Federal Aviation Administration policy that abetted Boeing’s lapses in pushing the unsafe 737 MAX to market. The restoration of trusted FAA oversight is a necessary step to set Boeing back on course as aviation’s longtime leader.  

Legislation that passed Congress Monday, championed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., rolls back Boeing’s ability to control much of the certification process for its aircraft. Misguided attempts to streamline federal policy and help Boeing over the years had improperly ceded too much of the FAA’s responsibilities to the manufacturer.

As a Senate Commerce Committee report this month showed, Boeing abused this free hand, limiting the FAA’s ability to spot flaws in the 737 MAX that would have been expensive to fix. The federal agency compliantly went along, setting off a chain of systematic failures. FAA test pilots were “inappropriately coached” about cockpit logistics, that report found. Flight control systems that should have been reviewed holistically were presented in fragmentary fashion. Whistleblowers rightly alarmed about this way of doing business faced unethical retaliations. It took two 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people to forced Boeing to ground its global 737 MAX fleet.

The reform legislation correctly restores the paramount role airplane safety must play in FAA’s oversight of all manufacturers, including Boeing. The upside-down thinking that implemented paid incentives for federal inspectors to meet manufacturers’ certification deadlines has correctly been stopped. The FAA now directly oversees engineers responsible for safety work, and has a mandate to review systems design changes in their full cockpit context. These and other fixes arrived too late to prevent the 737 MAX disaster, but they can help Boeing restore its reputation — and market leadership — by enforcing rigorous safety requirements. 

The downturn throughout the aerospace industry created by the COVID-19 pandemic gives Boeing and the FAA a bit of breathing room to recreate a functional relationship. Boeing’s next aircraft, the 777X, won’t be delivered until 2022. For Boeing’s sake, and other manufacturers’, the FAA must work intensively to show international regulators its certification can be trusted, as aviation analyst Scott Hamilton of Leeham News and Analysis told this editorial board. If unable to trust FAA assessment, other nations’ regulators conduct their own certifications, slowing the aircraft market for all. 

“Boeing and the FAA have a lot of credibility to restore,” he said, “and I think it’s going to take a long time to do that.” 

The reforms negotiated by Cantwell and her Commerce counterpart, committee chair Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., help reassert the primacy of safety in the FAA’s certification process. The regulatory agency’s responsibility to the flying public must not again become captive to Boeing’s conflicting motive to turn a profit.