Pilots praise beefed-up FAA aircraft certification

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Southwest Boeing 737 Max 8 [Credit: Angel DiBilio/Shutterstock.com]
A Southwest Boeing 737 Max in 2019. Photo Credit: Angel DiBilio/Shutterstock.com

Airline pilots are among those celebrating the passage of new legislation designed to beef up safety and accountability in the FAA's aircraft certification process.

The 137-page bill became law as part of the massive omnibus bill signed by President Trump Sunday, which also included Covid-19 relief. 

The legislation, originally introduced by House Transportation Committee Chair Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., is the culmination of a review into FAA aircraft certification practices begun by Congress last year in the wake of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max. The bill, said the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), "puts in place critical reforms to the aircraft certification process that will help ensure a proactive and objective safety culture across all levels."

Related report: American returns the Boeing 737 Max to U.S. service

The 737 Max was grounded in March 2019 following the second of two crashes that killed a combined 346 people. A flawed automated flight control system caused those Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes. Investigations undertaken by the House and Senate found more broadly that the Max was able to obtain certification due to weak oversight from the FAA and an overly cozy relationship between the agency and Boeing. 

The Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act seeks to reform the certification process through a number of measures. Notably, the bill prohibits the FAA from delegating the review and approval of key safety design features to aircraft manufacturers. That process, known as Organization Delegation Authorization (ODA), was among the issues called out by Congressional committees that reviewed the Max certification process. 

The bill, however, doesn't entirely do away with the ODA process, but it does require the appointment of FAA safety advisors to strengthen oversight on less critical issues for which delegation will still be allowed, and it also requires direct FAA authorization of ODA unit members. 

Further, it authorizes civil penalties of up to $1 million on individuals who withhold critical safety information from the FAA during the certification process. That provision addresses findings by Congressional investigators that Boeing concealed information about the 737 Max automated flight control system from the FAA and airlines. 

The legislation addresses numerous other issues, as well.  It strengthens whistleblower protections for workers at the FAA and aircraft manufacturers who report safety violations during the certification process.

It provides $81 million over the next three years for the FAA to hire additional engineers, safety inspectors and other technical experts.

And the bill requires aircraft manufacturers to create internal safety management systems that meet the standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is a United Nations body. Those systems must permit feedback from pilots in order to ensure that the operational assumptions made by aircraft designers are valid. 

"We are encouraged that this bill requires airline pilots to be an integral part of the certification process, ensuring that all newly developed and certificated aircraft will be held to the highest levels of safety necessary to keep our aviation system the safest in the world," ALPA president Joe DePete said.

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