Aircraft Accidents and a Trip to ‘The Hill’

On November 10, 2021, the Miami Herald published an article from the Seattle Times ’s Dominic Gates titled: FAA says Boeing is Appointing People Lacking Expertise to Oversee Airplane Certification. It was strange that Mr. Gates wrote a Hit Piece on one of Seattle’s largest employers. As one reads, it remains unclear what experience Mister Gates has with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) matters. The article’s picture showed a contrite FAA Assistant Administrator outing Boeing to Congress, saying Boeing built aircraft employing inexperienced engineers to oversee certifications. Yet, it was the FAA management’s actions and not Boeing’s, that stood out in the Hearing and the article. What was discussed caused great harm to FAA management’s reputation, raising serious questions about what FAA management has been doing – or not doing – these last two years. Mr. Gates should take note of that.

Was the FAA Assistant Administrator’s trip to ‘the Hill’ voluntary or was he called on to answer questions? The article was not clear. The article opened: “The Federal Aviation Administration this summer found Boeing had appointed engineers to oversee airplane certification work on behalf of the agency who lack the required technical expertise and often ‘are not meeting FAA expectations.’” This suggests the Congressional Committee heard from aviation professionals that the FAA had lost control of Boeing and their certification processes, that FAA management gave Boeing too much freedom in policing themselves. After all, whose job was it to vet these engineers? Mr. Gates heard Boeing …  Boeing … Boeing, but aviation industry professionals heard FAA … FAA … FAA. Safety integrity was at risk and FAA management needed to explain why.

Is this interpretation a stretch? Consider that a week later, on November 19, 2021, a Reuters article was published in US News: U.S. House Panel Seeks Review of FAA Oversight of Boeing 787? Reuters said that the FAA’s oversight – not Boeing’s – will be scrutinized by Congress’s US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, likely an Inspector General (IG) investigation. It was not chance that an IG investigation closely followed the FAA Assistant Administrator’s testimony.

In April 2008, FAA Assistant Administrator Nicholas Sabatini testified on ‘the Hill’, answering questions about Southwest Airlines. The FAA’s approach to their ‘customers’ – aka certificate holders – came into question. The IG felt the line had greyed between overseer and the overseen, which led to unsafe practices. Ironically, for years prior Mr. Sabatini had diligently spearheaded the most effective overhaul of the FAA’s greatest problem: Standardization. The FAA had become International Organization for Standardization 9001 – ISO-9001 – qualified. Mr. Sabatini’s management team had been proactively uniting all FAA offices across the globe with scheduled internal audits that guaranteed standardized certificate holder oversight with new safety programs. It worked great until January 2020 when the audit program fell victim to COVID shutdown overkill; FAA inspectors were forbidden to perform internal audits and certificate holder surveillances that were required.

It was during the FAA’s COVID shutdowns that Boeing allegedly employed inexperienced engineers for certificating aircraft, apparently without the FAA noticing. Would the overlong COVID shutdown prevent FAA inspectors from seeing? Would FAA upper management consider what benching FAA inspectors might lead to; what would happen when the shutdown extended into two years? Certificate Holders, like Boeing, went from being the Cause to being the Effect.

Meanwhile, the media continued to cry Boeing … Boeing … Boeing because they could not understand. A moot Bloomberg Business Week article claimed: Boeing Built an Unsafe Plane and Blamed the Pilots When It Crashed. How irresponsible. No facts supported that headline. It was strictly opinion built on accident reports that applied no effort to get to the root causes; no focused investigation into maintenance and inspection to base the reports’ findings on. The Komite Nasional Keselamatan Transportasi accident report (Lion Air 610) and the Aircraft Accident Bureau of Ethiopia AI-01/19 accident report (Ethiopian Airlines 302), each had maintenance-finding holes large enough to drive an A380 through. Each showed what inexperienced investigators brought to investigations. Meanwhile, uninformed reporting damaged reputations.

Mr. Gates’s article continued: “The need for those recent appointments arose because during the downturn from the pandemic Boeing offered early retirement to many more senior FAA-authorized safety engineers.” Did Boeing’s qualified engineers just decide to leave? Unlikely that a company, around since 1916, would so carelessly deplete their engineer ranks; it made no sense. Was there another reason the qualified engineers suddenly felt the urgent need to leave in large numbers? But no one said anything about large numbers. Or did they?

No one cares what side of the vaccine mandate (VM) conversation anyone falls on. However, all actions – including the enforcement of the VM – have consequences. That is a fact. The VM fallout has yet to be realized. Why would there be a fallout? Because experienced professionals, who remained suspicious of the vaccines’ safety, would rather quit or retire than surrender to the VM. Mr. Gates’s article never stipulated that the VM pushed people to leave. But consider what an FAA representative said in the article, “… that in one [Boeing] certification specialty, more than 20 such Boeing engineers left in a single month.” 20 certification engineers left – in one specialty – in a single month. That is a large number. Are professionals leaving their jobs over their principles?

Per Mr. Gates, when asked about the VM’s effect on the FAA, The FAA Assistant Administrator said the FAA was focused directly on VM compliance. Why? VM compliance is not the FAA’s mission – Safety is. What does the VM have to do with aviation safety or overseeing certificate holders? “I do not expect to lose a significant portion of our workforce,” he said, “We have robust contingency plans in place.”Contingency plans for what? What is a “significant portion of the FAA workforce”? Are skilled inspectors leaving? How are they distributed by specialty? Will any offices lose high percentages of airworthiness or operations inspectors? How much lost skill and knowledge would FAA management consider ‘irreplaceable’? Do they even know? “At this point in time, I’m not seeing any impact on safety …” This Boeing “impact on safety” happened with the FAA at full capacity. FAA management drove its inspectors to comply with the VM, but not to conduct aviation safety on-site surveillance. That is an impact on safety.

Why would the media think Boeing is alone in this? What about other aircraft manufacturers of the fixed-wing and rotary varieties? If other manufacturers were like Boeing, how many would hire the inexperienced to save money? What about government contractors that provide military equipment or airlines with more than 100 employees providing Civil Reserve Air Fleet support; are their people leaving because of the vaccine? Is this a prelude to a mass exodus? With thousands of experienced professionals separating, how long before manufacturers and air carriers return to quality?

The FAA found the deficiencies at Boeing during visits in July and August when it interviewed some of the new appointees. Since then, the FAA has introduced new procedures to address the problem.” July and August were over three months ago. Committee members were assured that since the B737-MAX accidents, the FAA had Boeing “… under intense scrutiny.” Those two accidents happened over two years ago, in 2019. If FAA management just found out about Boeing’s inexperienced engineers three months ago and FAA inspectors’ movements have been restricted for two years, how intense would this scrutiny have been?

According to the article, “New rules are scheduled to take effect before year end that will require every proposed appointee to be interviewed by the FAA and then either approved or rejected by the agency.” From July and August, that would be four to five months just to get the rules enacted – not enforced.

Where is the US Secretary of the Department of Transportation (SDOT), the cabinet member responsible for the FAA and all five transportation disciplines? SDOT took two to three-months of Paternity Leave, and no one even realized he was gone. Question: How crucial is one’s job if no one knows you are missing? Allegedly, he is trying to resolve a major nationwide supply chain breakdown and striving to redo Racist Roadways, whatever they are. Tweeting about the 1.5-trillion-dollar Infrastructure Law, SDOT said, “People who care about transportation have been waiting a long time for this day, and @USDOT is ready to get to work.” Are any “people who care about transportation” more worried about mythical Racist Roadways than whether airplanes are not properly certified and/or aviation safety is improved? It is good to hear SDOT “is [now] ready to get to work”. What has he been doing all this time?

The last two years did not reflect the dedication to safety that FAA inspectors and safety advocates possess. Unfortunately, the travelling public – even our elected officials – do not see the real dedicated safety specialists on the front lines. Instead, they are treated to officials who point to someone else’s mistakes while defending poor choices. We are headed for hard times in aviation, starting with needed IG investigations from ‘the Hill’. The B737-MAX is back in the headlines; the B777-X is now under suspicion; the B787 is now on the IG’s radar. This is just the beginning. A hands off/eyes off approach to safety is going to be the IG’s focus. Government officials may yet learn what the travelling public thinks about shutting down safety oversights for what could amount to … absolutely no reason at all.

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