Was the FAA’s failure to catch issues on the Boeing 737 MAX a fluke — or part of a more serious problem? According to two FAA inspectors interviewed by CBS This Morning yesterday, the agency has punished inspectors who challenge airlines and airports too strenuously, leading to unsafe conditions apart from the 737 MAX issue. But it’s not just Boeing or even manufacturers in general that are the problem — it’s also airlines:
Two Federal Aviation Administration inspectors – each with a decade of experience with the FAA – say they have an urgent message for U.S. travelers: “people’s lives” could be at stake. They told CBS News “the flying public needs to wake up” and that people need to know flying “is not as safe as it could be.” Both asked to remain anonymous because they fear losing their jobs for speaking out.
“I’ve had reports that I had entered into our database one day were there and the next morning, they’re gone,” one told “CBS This Morning” co-host Tony Dokoupil.
They say managers at the FAA pressure inspectors like them to ignore critical safety issues like corrosion or making sure vendors were FAA compliant and retaliated if inspectors refused to back off.
“I’ve been flat out told to back off,” one inspector said. “I’ve had airlines contact my management and ask them not to assign me any inspections to that airline.”
It’s not the first time that the FAA’s “mutual cooperation” approach has been questioned:
A 2016 Inspector General’s report echoes their concerns. It found that another FAA inspector, Charles Banks, was pressured to back off an airline then was punished by management. When reached by CBS News, Banks confirmed that he was punished by the FAA for filing reports of problems with Miami Air International.
The unfolding scandal surrounding the 737 Max certainly seems to fit within these complaints. Already, indications have emerged that the FAA took a very trusting position with Boeing during the rollout of the new platform. After two fatal crashes, the FAA took a more assertive position — and whistleblowers from within Boeing started telling about more issues with the platform and shortcuts taken with certifications.
Earlier this month, the Seattle Times reported that the certification issues at Boeing aren’t limited to the 737 MAX:
In 2016, as Boeing raced to get the 737 MAX certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a senior company engineer whose job was to act on behalf of the FAA balked at Boeing management demands for less stringent testing of the fire-suppression system around the jet’s new LEAP engines.
That June he convened a meeting of all the certification engineers in his unit, who collectively agreed with his assessment. Management initially rejected their position, and only after another senior engineer from outside the MAX program intervened did managers finally agree to beef up the testing to a level the engineer could accept, according to two people familiar with the matter.
But his insistence on a higher level of safety scrutiny cost Boeing time and money.
Less than a month after his peers had backed him, Boeing abruptly removed him from the program even before conducting the testing he’d advocated.
The episode underscores what The Seattle Times found after a review of documents and interviews with more than a dozen current and former Boeing engineers who have been involved in airplane certification in recent years, including on the 737 MAX: Many engineers, employed by Boeing while officially designated to be the FAA’s eyes and ears, faced heavy pressure from Boeing managers to limit safety analysis and testing so the company could meet its schedule and keep down costs.
At issue again was the change in approach to regulatory compliance. The Seattle Times explains that the older system used Designated Engineering Representatives, Boeing engineers appointed by the FAA to review safety issues who reported directly to the FAA. In the new model, Boeing (and other manufacturers) appoint Authorized Representatives, who report back to Boeing management and send reports back to the FAA under that supervision. That eliminates a key oversight authority to force Boeing to use people who are independent of their management.
The incentives to bow to business interests in this structure are fairly obvious, and appear to be present in oversight of both manufacturers and airlines. The FAA should be a counter to those normal business pressures. If these whistleblowers are telling the truth, it might not be an acute risk at the moment to travelers and airline personnel — but it could easily escalate into an acute risk. The time to address this is now.