On October 11, 2019, the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) consisting of representatives from the FAA, NASA, and Civil Aviation Authorities (CAA’s) from Australia, Brazil, Canada. China, Europe, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and the UAE, submitted its report to the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety. In short, it is a broad condemnation of the FAA’s aircraft certification process and its twelve recommendations call for a wholesale review and modification of the entire certification process. Its recommendation are meaningful and timely; the FAA should embrace the report and adopt all of the recommendations.
In a single sentence in his cover letter accompanying the report, Christopher Hart, former NTSB chair and Chairman of the JATR, summed up what many of us in aviation have known for years. After noting that systems have become more complex and making it more likely regulations and standards would not address every conceivable scenario, Hart stated: “To the extent that they do not address every scenario, compliance with every applicable regulation and standard does not necessarily ensure safety.” (emphasis added).
The Report continued to suggest that the Organization Designation Authorization Program, or ODA (interesting changed acronym from its previous “DOA”), the program by which the FAA grants the manufacturer/designer, in this case Boeing, authority over the certification project, is weak due to inadequate CAA oversight. The JATR team concluded that FAA resources fall short which may have contributed to an “inadequate number of FAA specialists being involved in the B737 MAX certification program.” In short, the FAA was incapable to oversee Boeing’s activities due to a lack qualified engineers and technical expertise.
Specifically, as to the highly problematical and deadly Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), the reported stated that the FAA “had inadequate awareness of the MCAS function which, coupled with limited involvement, resulted in the inability of the FAA to provide an independent assessment of the adequacy of the Boeing proposed certification activities associated with the MCAS.” This inadequacy, coupled with the Boeing test pilots’ failure to be candid with the FAA when they encountered problems with the MCAS system during flight simulator tests (addressed in a subsequent article), made it almost certain that the FAA would not discover the fatal flaws in the MCAS.
Of the many findings and recommendations made by this panel, none is more important than its emphasis on a holistic aircraft certification process. Given the complexity of modern aircraft, it is important that any modification be evaluated in relation to the entire aircraft. A change to one components or system can have unintended and dramatic consequences to the aircraft system as a whole. Hence, no more piecemeal alterations looking solely at that particular aspect of the aircraft and no more layer upon layer of changes to an already existing, sometimes much older platform that in some cases bears little relation to the original type-certificated model.
Other certification aspects addressed in the report include making sure that all operational aspects of design changes are considered in operations and training, the different operating environments between manufacturer engineering test pilots and operational test pilots, post-certification follow-up and monitoring of design changes.
James T. Crouse has been a pilot for thirty-two years, during which time he has performed as a U.S. Army aircraft maintenance officer, maintenance test pilot, and research and development test pilot. Mr. Crouse has litigation experience involving major air carriers, general aviation, helicopter, and military crashes, as well as non-aviation mass disaster litigation.