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FAA still needs to strengthen Boeing oversight after Max crashes, inspector general says

The Transportation Department’s internal watchdog said in a report that the Federal Aviation Administration still needs to do more to stiffen its oversight of Boeing two years after deadly 737 Max crashes. Although Boeing has redesigned the jets and the FAA has approved them as safe to fly, the inspector general concluded in the report that the agency’s approach to reviewing updates to existing aircraft designs should be improved. The watchdog also said the agency has work to do to ensure that its staff and a much larger team of Boeing employees assigned to conduct work for the government could guarantee safety.

The inspector general’s findings were obtained Wednesday by The Washington Post before their publication that evening. The report is the result of a review that began in March 2019 and is the latest detailed look inside the FAA after the Max crashes.

It identifies ongoing shortcomings and makes 14 recommendations to the agency.

“For decades, FAA has maintained an admirable safety record,” the inspector general wrote. “However, the lessons of the Boeing 737 Max demonstrate the need for a more holistic approach to both certification and FAA’s safety oversight of manufacturers.”

Congress already has ordered changes, passing legislation in December aimed at tightening the FAA’s oversight of Boeing and other manufacturers. Some provisions in the law — including funding for more technical staff and steps to guarantee the independence of Boeing employees working on the government’s behalf — mirror recommendations made by the inspector general.

In a written response to the inspector general’s office, the FAA said it accepted the recommendations.

“Since the two tragic Boeing 737 Max accidents, FAA has already made substantial progress towards implementing reforms that address some of your recommendations,” an FAA official wrote in a formal response.

But fully putting those recommendations into practice could take five years, according to a timeline set out by the agency.

Boeing said in a statement that the company has made significant changes to reinforce safety practices, while also making progress on several recommendations outlined in the report.

“As part of our ongoing efforts, we have made meaningful improvements across our company, including organizational changes, enhanced compliance policies and training initiatives, and the creation of new mechanisms to further ensure transparent safety and quality reporting,” the company said.

About half of the report focuses on an oversight system known as Organization Designation Authorization. Other investigators have said the system was partly responsible for the agency missing flaws in the design of new software on the Max before crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.

The inspector general’s office raised concerns about the oversight system in 2015. While the inspector general noted in the new report that the FAA did undertake some changes, it said the agency needs to do more to ensure that its small staff was focusing on the biggest risks posed by the system.

“It is not clear that FAA’s current oversight structure and processes can identify future high-risk safety concerns at the ODA,” the inspector general wrote.

The crashes were caused by software on the Max that could push down the plane’s nose. The pilots of the two jets that crashed were overwhelmed by the system, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, after faulty sensor data caused it to activate repeatedly. In both cases, the pilots were unable to correct as the jets plunged.

After the second crash, the jets were grounded worldwide while Boeing redesigned the software. The FAA approved the new design in November and airlines gradually have been reincorporating the Max.

After the crashes, investigators uncovered systemic problems at the FAA and about half a dozen previous reports have identified similar issues to those outlined in the latest inspector general review.

The report addressed details demonstrating flaws in FAA management and oversight, including discrepancies in how the agency assigns its employees and lapses in how they communicate with each other.

The auditors described a pair of meetings in 2016 — one a briefing for FAA personnel, another a meeting with foreign regulators also attended by FAA employees — during which key details of MCAS were discussed.

In a May 2016 briefing, according to auditors, FAA flight test personnel were told about “the increased maximum range of MCAS,” a critical issue other investigators said was at the core of the crashes. But FAA engineers working in its Aircraft Certification division “were unaware of the significant changes,” according to the audit.

“Communication channels between FAA Aircraft Certification and Flight Standards offices are not clear and do not ensure all critical knowledge is shared,” the auditors wrote.

That lack of communication at the FAA came as Boeing employees were trying to defraud the agency, the Justice Department said in January as part of a $2.5 billion settlement with the company.

In some cases, Boeing engineers split their time working on coming up with designs for the company, then approving them as safe in their work on the government’s behalf, the inspector general found.

“This may not provide enough independence and could cause a conflict of duties for those unit members,” according to the report. FAA rules don’t prohibit the practice, and while Boeing tries to avoid it, the company said sometimes the overlap is necessary “because of a lack of staff in certain technical areas.”

The inspector general recommended that the FAA review the practice.

Auditors also found a mismatch between the resources devoted to oversight of Boeing, a manufacturing behemoth making airliners that carry millions of passengers, and Gulfstream Aerospace, which makes business jets.

The inspector general’s auditors put the size of the core FAA team overseeing Boeing’s ODA at 42 people. In 2019, they were responsible for overseeing 448 major certification projects from Boeing and 1,500 company employees.

The FAA’s core “Organization Management Team” for Gulfstream included 19 people. But they had a much smaller workload, according to the inspector general’s analysis, overseeing Gulfstream’s 89 major certification projects and 477 employees.

The inspector general said the FAA’s leaders had not comprehensively reviewed staffing on the Boeing team to determine whether it was sufficient.

In a response to the audit, the FAA said it has taken steps to improve communication. That includes efforts to “enhance cross-office awareness and further integrate decision-making.”

Yet auditors also noted that an earlier management restructuring by the FAA had itself made matters more difficult.

“The organizational structure of FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service underwent a major reorganization in 2017, potentially further complicating the already complex relational dynamics,” auditors wrote.

This article originally appeared on Washington Post

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