The FAA & the 737

As a pilot, and a lover of Boeing jets, I’ve been following the 737 MAX stories very closely. Aviation can be a difficult beat for any reporter to cover, but in times like these, it’s important that the flying public is given an accurate view of the situation.

The Department of Transportation and Justice Department have launched criminal probes of the MAX certification process. While it’s possible that there were a few bad actors in the process, it’s unlikely that there are systemic problems within the safety certification process.

The aviation community’s first priority is safety. From my first days of flight training on the airfield, a culture of safety was ingrained in me. Everything starts and ends with safety. Accidents in aviation are extremely rare, but when they do occur, we learn new lessons to improve processes and safety.

The 737 MAX was the Boeing response to the Airbus 321neo. Reports bring up the fact that the Boeing team was scrambling to get the MAX designed and certified so that they could keep up with their competition. This scramble should not necessarily be equated to cutting corners.

It’s a normal business process in aviation design to create substantially similar aircraft in order to streamline the certification process. The 757-200 was initially certified, and then Boeing created the 757-300, an elongated version. For the 737, Boeing had already created the 737 (1964), -100 (1967), -200 (1968), -300 (1980s), -400 (1980s), -500 (1980s), -600 (1990s), -700 (1990s), -800 (1990s), and -900 (1990s). The MAX is simply the next iteration on the 737. Each time, improvements were made, sometimes capacity expanded, and the FAA certified the airframe. So it would be unfair to immediately draw conclusions on this business decision alone.

Sometimes the FAA will reject a request for a streamlined certification process. The Boeing 767 features the exact same flight deck layout as the Boeing 757, but the FAA chose to require a separate pilot rating for aircrews on each airframe.

Regardless of the certification, streamlined or not, the aircraft had to prove itself. Boeing underwent a rigorous process to prove that the updated aircraft was safe to fly and ready to enter service. The plane was put through a battery of systems, ground, and flight tests. The FAA is an independent regulator and takes flight safety very seriously. They do rely on industry experts for specialized areas of expertise, but they had no incentive to approve an unsafe airframe.

While we want answers, and want them quickly, aircraft accident investigation is a lengthy and thorough process. In the United States, even in fatal accidents, it usually takes two years for a final report to be issued. The fact that these accidents occurred in foreign countries, and one in water, will make it more difficult to complete a thorough and rigorous accident investigation.

The worldwide grounding of the MAX fleet seemed to be haphazard, with the FAA garnering a negative impression by the flying public. It’s important to remember that, while these accidents are scary and certainly two of the same type in this period of time is unusual, we have to keep an evidence-based process.

We will find out what happened in these accidents, Boeing will make changes to processes, procedures, and training, and the 737 MAX will fly again. In the meantime, have confidence in the airlines, mechanics, pilots, and regulators that regardless of their personal interests, safety is always priority one.

© 2019 Chet J. Collins