The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has historically maintained an excellent safety record. However, two fatal accidents in 2018 and 2019 involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 raised concerns about the FAA’s oversight and certification of civilian aircraft manufactured and operated in the United States.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Transportation has undertaken a series of reviews related to FAA’s certification of the MAX and its safety oversight. Its latest report focuses on the FAA’s risk assessments following the accidents, as well as the recertification and return to service efforts for the MAX.
OIG found that the FAA’s steps following the accidents were in line with its overall post-event risk assessment processes; however, the watchdog identified some areas that may impact the Agency’s response in the future. First, the FAA’s processes, by design, allow for significant flexibility in order to factor in the judgment of engineers. Second, the FAA has not updated the underlying order and related guidance for its post-event risk assessment processes in over a decade. Third, the Agency lacks quantifiable human factors data, such as pilot reactions to non-normal situations. Finally, the FAA’s engineers are not all following or receiving the same guidance or training. As a result, the FAA may not be able to ensure it consistently follows the most effective risk assessment processes following a safety event.
The FAA completed the recertification of the 737 MAX on November 18, 2020. During the recertification process, the Agency retained regulatory compliance findings for the design changes instead of delegating them to Boeing’s Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program. Numerous complex issues from multiple safety reviews prompted the FAA to require Boeing to submit a document demonstrating the effects of Boeing’s proposed changes on the speed trim system and how those changes affected the safe operation of the MAX. While the FAA is incorporating many of the lessons learned from the MAX recertification efforts for future projects, OIG determined that there are still improvements and procedures currently being codified by the Agency.
OIG made seven recommendations as a result of its findings, with which the FAA has agreed:
- Document the process by which key safety decisions, such as a potential grounding of an aircraft fleet, are made when the Agency identifies that urgent action is necessary.
- Revise the Transport Airplane Risk Assessment Methodology (TARAM) handbook to incorporate current safety data, including available international data when appropriate.
- Review the TARAM handbook’s quantitative safety guidelines to determine if they still meet the Agency’s needs, and implement identified corrections as appropriate.
- Formalize training requirements for engineers responsible for completing TARAM analysis, as well as managers responsible for reviewing the analysis.
- Review the TARAM and Transport Airplane Safety Manual (TASM), address any identified key differences the two documents, and integrate TASM into TARAM when appropriate.
- Incorporate integrated System Safety Assessments into regulations or Agency guidance for future transport category airplane certification projects.
- Identify lessons learned related to the application of the 737 MAX recertification and the Continued Operational Safety process that have not yet been addressed and include them into airplane certification and safety evaluation processes.