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U.S. Senators Introduce Bipartisan FAA Reform Legislation
A bipartisan proposal to bolster the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight of commercial aircraft manufacturers was introduced to the U.S. Senate this week. Senators Roger Wicker (Republican, Mississippi) and Maria Cantwell (Democrat, Washington) sponsored the bill known as the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act of 2020.
In a statement from the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the committee said “this bipartisan legislation would implement provisions to improve aviation safety based on lessons learned from the tragic Boeing 737 MAX crashes, including addressing human factors to accurately assess pilot responses to cockpit alerts.”
Senator Cantwell, who represents the state of Washington, home to the manufacturing center of Boeing’s B737 MAX, said the bill will give “clear FAA oversight and authority over the aircraft certification process.” The senator elaborated further saying “the bill also includes provisions to strengthen safety oversight procedures; address human factors to accurately assess pilot response to cockpit alerts; eliminate industry-friendly panels and incentives; establish new whistleblower protections; and give FAA more technical resources.”
Boeing’s 737 MAX was involved in two crashes where post-accident investigations identified concerns with how the aircraft was certified and how the FAA oversees certification efforts.
At issue is a current provision where the manufacturer is delegated certain approval authorities by the FAA to certify aircraft design as well as processes and procedures used by flight crews when operating the aircraft. The authority is granted under the FAA’s Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) where manufacturers like Boeing designate engineers and quality personnel to act on the FAA’s behalf. The proposed legislation would give FAA additional responsibility to limit, select, approve and oversee their industry designees.
Critics have previously warned that the current ODA authority places employees at the manufacturers in a conflict of interest position where they may feel pressured to approve certification requirements to meet manufacturing milestones. The bill would require the development of policies for ODAs, including those that may cause undue pressure or regulatory coziness are addressed. Further, the bill prohibits limitations on direct communications between ODA unit members and FAA inspectors.
The proposed legislation also requires the FAA to act on National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations on new safety standards for automation and pilot training, a complaint the NTSB has leveled at the FAA previously on not acting fast enough in implementing safety directives it recommends.
“Safety is paramount,” said Cantwell. “A primary goal of this legislation is to make sure the FAA remains in the driver’s seat when it comes to certification. This bill makes it clear the FAA is in charge of the certification workforce and the approval process. It’s critically important that the FAA keep pace with skill levels and new technology to oversee the certification process.”
Neither Boeing or the FAA has commented on the proposed legislation. But some family members of the victims in the 737 MAX accidents have suggested the bill moves in the right direction but lacks the teeth needed to enact change.
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