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FAA finalizes safety rule change sought after 737 Max crashes

Sept. 7, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 7, 2022 at 8:05 p.m.

A Boeing 737 MAX-9, built for Alaska Airlines, undergoes testing as it flies past the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash., on March 23, 2020.   (Tribune News Service)
A Boeing 737 MAX-9, built for Alaska Airlines, undergoes testing as it flies past the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash., on March 23, 2020.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ian Duncan Washington Post

The Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules Wednesday designed to guarantee the independence of engineers employed by Boeing and other aviation companies tasked with performing safety oversight on the government’s behalf.

The rules enshrine a shift in the relationship between Boeing and regulators, which Congress and independent experts called for after 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019.

The FAA does not have enough staff to oversee the complex design of modern aircraft, so it relies on a program called Organization Designation Authorization to supplement its resources. Companies that take part in the program then designate their own employees to carry out work on the government’s behalf. The arrangement boosts the government’s technical expertise but creates the risk that employees will be pressured to serve the company’s interests rather than the public’s.

The rules in a new order are aimed at ensuring companies don’t exert that pressure and that suspected cases of interference are investigated.

“Ensuring an environment free of interference is foundational to the confidence the FAA places in each ODA holder,” the order says.

The FAA also opened applications Wednesday to serve on a new 24-member panel that will review the system and make recommendations for how it could be improved. The panel will include representatives from the FAA, NASA, labor unions, airlines and aviation manufacturers.

The ODA system came under scrutiny after the Max crashes, which killed 346 people and shook confidence in the FAA and Boeing. Investigations found that in both cases, a flaw in an automated system was a key reason for the jets plunging into fatal dives, and that the flaw had not been caught by safety reviews when the planes were being designed.

The system had changed over many years and a House Transportation Committee review of the crashes concluded a “decline in product quality and safety culture at Boeing outlined above coincided with the evolution in the FAA’s oversight structure of the aviation industry.”

In late 2020, as the Max was being reintroduced to global airline fleets after design changes and another safety review by the FAA, Congress passed an overhaul of airplane safety laws requiring stronger oversight by the government.

The Transportation Department’s internal watchdog also recommended changes.

In the years since, the agency has made changes that include approving individual employees assigned to companies’ safety units. The FAA has also assumed more direct responsibility to review planes manufactured by Boeing – including the 787 Dreamliner, which has been plagued by quality control problems.

Allegations of interference have continued to arise. In August 2021, the FAA said it was opening a review at Boeing after employees described facing conflicts of interest.

The rules issued Wednesday spell out that interference can include obvious reprisals for reporting safety issues, but also giving employees additional responsibilities that get in the way of work on the public’s behalf.

They also set forth new responsibilities for companies that take part in the program. Engineers working on behalf of the FAA must be given an anonymous annual survey about interference, while the rules also require companies to investigate suspected incidents of interference.

The rules say company employees working for the FAA must be allowed to communicate with government employees – a provision intended to provide a direct channel for raising serious safety concerns.

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