Following two crashes of Boeing's 737 Max that killed 346 people last year, a panel established by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Thursday defended the FAA's process for certifying the still-grounded airplane. Led by a former president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the five-member panel said that while the FAA could improve its inspection process, it saw no need for substantial changes.
"The Committee found that the FAA's certification system is effective and a significant contributor to the world's safest aviation system," the report's executive summary said. "The [FAA] is keenly aware of the challenges to safety amid a rapidly changing and expanding industry."
After the second crash in Ethiopia in March, the FAA faced scrutiny from Congress and the FBI over how it originally inspected the airliner and cleared it to carry passengers. A focus of the committee's investigation was whether the agency, which is a division of the Department of Transportation, should continue to delegate portions of its aircraft certification process to third-party companies as part of a program called Organization Designation Authorization. Boeing used ODA to certify the 737 Max and earlier aircraft like the 787 and 777, meaning that it inspected its own planes under the FAA's guidance.
But the committee concluded that the Max's five-year certification process wouldn't have reached different conclusions without the delegation program. "[ODA] is an iterative, comprehensive process grounded in the cumulative expertise of the FAA gained through over a half century of process management and oversight," the summary said. "The FAA should continue to make use of the current delegation system, which is solidly established, well controlled and promotes safety through effective oversight."
The report also said that MCAS, the flight control system currently being blamed for both crashes, was identified and tested as part of the certification process. Protocols, though, didn't require testing the system for a combination of both mechanical and human failures.
Suggested changes from the committee included closer coordination between aviation safety agencies in other countries, better data gathering and utilization, more review of how human failure can impact all safety-critical functions, and more guidance on communication procedures when using the ODA process.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement he was pleased with the committee's findings. "The agency will carefully consider the committee's work, along with the recommendations identified in various investigative reports and other analyses, as we take steps to enhance our aircraft certification processes."
A spokesman for Boeing told CNET the company thanked the committee for its work. "Safety is a core value at Boeing, and we are committed to continuous improvements in global aerospace safety," the spokesman said. "We will study these recommendations closely, as we continue to work with government and industry stakeholders to enhance the certification process."