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House approves changes in FAA certification after 737 MAX crashes

The United States House of Representatives voted to approve changes to the way that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certifies commercial aircraft. In the bipartisan bill, the lawmakers aim to improve accountability, oversight and safety, following the two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes that claimed the lives of 346 people.

The bill called the Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act was first introduced by the House Transport and Infrastructure Committee on September 28, 2020, and was approved by the committee two days later. The 25-point act would make sweeping changes to the way that aircraft certification is carried out in the United States, with particular attention to the FAA’s processes. It passed the house on November 17, 2020.

“I’m proud we are taking this important step today to fix the broken system that allowed Boeing to put profits over safety and push a flawed airplane through the regulatory process, ultimately leading to the deaths of 346 innocent people,” stated the chairman of the committee Peter DeFazio.

Safety changes and emphasis on human factors

In order to improve safety, the bill would require the FAA to issue regulations for type and production certificate holders to incorporate Safety Management Systems (SMS) in their processes. The SMS would allow employees of aerospace manufacturers to report safety or ethical concerns that could affect safety confidentially.

Another point in the bill would require manufacturers to disclose safety-critical information to the FAA, “including information regarding systems that manipulate flight controls without direct pilot input or commands, correct adverse handling qualities, or compensate for unstable aerodynamic properties, as well as other systems whose failure or erroneous activation would present a risk-rated hazardous or catastrophic.” Seemingly, this aims to eliminate the risk of such systems as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that is present on the Boeing 737 MAX. At first, the flight manuals of the aircraft excluded information about the MCAS, which proved to be fatal in Lion Air flight JT610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302.

The new bill would prohibit the FAA from issuing a type certificate for a new aircraft design unless the cockpit has a centralized crew alerting system that would only help the pilots differentiate different warnings on the aircraft. Furthermore, the FAA’s certification process would have to “support the better integration of human factors and system safety assessments of aircraft flight deck and flight control systems,” according to the act. In addition, the administration would have to develop its own human factors education program to better understand various safety factors, including how modern cockpit systems affect human performance.

Training requirements would also be looked at, as the FAA would now have to independently review what kind of training program a manufacturer has designed for an aircraft. Aircraft builders would be prohibited from making certain promises to airlines about the training requirements. Seemingly, this part of the bill specifically targets the deal that Boeing and Southwest Airlines (LUV) had made when the low-cost carrier ordered the 737 MAX: if simulator training was needed, the manufacturer would pay $1 million per delivered aircraft, covering 280 ordered units.

An expert safety review of the FAA and manufacturers’ assumptions would be mandated. When designing and certifying safety systems, both parties would have to take into account “the global nature of the marketplace and varying pilot training programs worldwide,” including the fact that the FAA would have to “exercise leadership in setting global standards to improve airline pilot training and qualifications.

Oversight and designation

Not only would the bill prompt to change the way safety and human factors are considered, but also the current system of oversight and designation, another controversial topic during the Boeing 737 MAX crisis.

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