Last week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) submitted its third review related to the FAA’s certification of Boeing’s 737 Max airliners and the agency’s safety oversight in light of the two high-profile accidents that grounded the fleet worldwide. The DOT concluded that, while the process of returning the Max series to service is complete and the FAA has an admirable record in maintaining safety, “opportunities exist to improve the agency’s risk assessments and certification processes.”
Among the areas the DOT thought could be improved were updating the FAA’s underlying order and related guidance of its post-event risk assessment processes, which have not changed in more than a decade, according to the DOT. The department also asserted that the FAA “lacks quantifiable human factors data, such as pilot reactions to non-normal situations.” Also, according to the DOT’s summary of the review, all FAA engineers do not follow or receive the same guidance or training. “As a result,” the review said, “FAA may not be able to ensure it consistently follows the most effective risk assessment processes following a safety event.”
Some news reports have asserted that the DOT review suggests that some FAA engineers pushed for grounding the Max fleet earlier but were overridden by agency management. Regarding the timing of the grounding, the review said, “According to FAA officials, the Agency did not immediately ground the Max following the [second accident involving Ethiopian Airlines] because they wanted more detailed data before they could make an informed decision. This is supported by our review of emails from the period of March 10 through March 13, 2019. FAA received the preliminary flight data on March 11 and began to evaluate it. However, FAA faced challenges when trying to interpret the initial raw data, which lacked enough specifics to compare with the more detailed information that had been compiled from the [previous] Lion Air accident. In addition, FAA officials were receiving information regarding the configuration of the airplane at the time of the accident, which indicated that the accident might not be related to MCAS.”
The summary of the report concluded, “While FAA is incorporating many of the lessons learned from the Max recertification efforts for future projects, there are still improvements and procedures currently being codified by the Agency.
“We made seven recommendations to improve FAA’s processes for risk assessment and determination of corrective actions. FAA concurred with all our recommendations and provided appropriate actions and planned completion dates.”