Is the FAA fit for purpose?

By | Category: Travel news

Anyone who flies for business or on holidays relies on regulators to make sure that the planes on which we fly are safe.

737-MAX 8 Artwork. Image © Boeing

That trust has been severely dented by an admission from the FAA that it knew there were faults with the Boeing 737 max but that it still enabled the plane to fly.

The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is the regulatory body for the USA. Because the USA has been the home for many airline manufacturers over the years such as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed, the FAA acquired worldwide importance since many of the popular passenger jets were American made.

If the FAA granted approval then everything was OK.

Even as companies merged and Boeing and the European owned Airbus became the dominant players in the market, the FAA was still regarded as pre-eminent.

But the admission yesterday in US congressional hearings that the FAA was aware of faults in the Max is deeply concerning. If the FAA says Boeing planes are safe should we believe them?

The admission was that in November 2018 – just one month after the first Max crash – the FAA concluded that unless design changes were instituted there could be up to a further fifteen crashes. In fact there was just one more. That one plane crash was of the Ethiopian Airlines plane and it killed all those on board. The consternation that caused resulted in the Max being grounded.

Incidentally there is nothing on the FAA website about yesterday’s hearings. Not even an apology for their role in certifying the plane

But it appears Boeing knew that there were problems with the plane before the very first crash. A whisteblower who worked at Boeing, Ed Pierson, has testified that he urged Boeing to stop work on the plane because of “mistakes and cut corners.” We know that Boeing had meetings with him at a senior level but it appears that only minor changes were made. He says that he also told regulators as well. They seem to have ignored him.

Another whistleblower, Michael Collins, said he was aware that senior FAA staff followed Boeing’s line rather than that of less senior FAA staff who had identified safety concerns.  He said that a senior manager overruled the concerns of a number of engineers.

More damming is the fact that he said that at the outset, FAA bosses agreed with the assessment of the engineers. What caused them to change their minds? In future sessions, passengers may find out the answer!

If the FAA has been slipshod in its monitoring of the Max, can we really trust it on other planes that it certifies? Another Boeing plane, the Dreamliner (Boeing 787) had a problem with its lithium batteries which caused the plane to be grounded. Changes were made, the plane was allowed to fly but shortly afterwards there was yet another problem with the batteries.

At the end of October cracks were found in the landing gear of some Boeing 737’s flown by Qantas which led to demands to ground all 737’s and not just the Max.

Just under 400 Max’s have been delivered to airlines around the world. About another 4,500 are on order.

Twice I have written about whether passengers would be willing to fly on the Max and reported that Michael O’Leary (Ryanair is one of the biggest planned purchasers of the Max) considers them safe. Are passengers convinced? The more information that is revealed the more I wonder. And the more I wonder if we can trust the FAA.

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