With news on March 4 that Pratt & Whitney uncovered an elaborate scheme to falsify material certifications for some parts, which they have already moved aggressively to correct, the issue of regulatory oversight and self-policing is once again at the forefront of the industry.
The good news is that the industry, overall, does an excellent job. Typically, when a breakdown occurs, a whistleblower or a slip-up by the perpetrator will find it way into the hands of quality assurance personnel, who quickly take action. Since there hasn’t been a major fatal accident in the US in recent years, the industry’s safety record continues to improve. But that doesn’t mean the system is perfect or that vigilance must stop.
Recently, there have been a few major incidents of improper parts in the industry, most ending positively, like those at Pratt & Whitney and UTC, in which management changes were made and new procedures put in place to ensure that the situation never happens again. Fortunately, the forgings made from substandard materials do not appear to be to a degree of severity that would cause a safety of flight issue.
A few years ago, Boeing faced a similar whistleblower situation, but chose a different response path, according to media reports, resulting in employee firings and a whistleblower lawsuit. A report by Newsweek’s blog here and a story by Al-Jazeera linked here indicate a very different outcome.
Why did Pratt & Whitney to step up to the plate and fully address a situation, with transparency, while Boeing apparently took another direction in a similar situation? Is it management leadership? Or is it simply a company doing the right thing, in a era when it has become easier not to do the right thing?
Discussions about changing the FAA certification process have emerged as a result of Boeing, and the FAA’s, failure to properly assess the risk of battery fires on the Boeing 787. Many industry observers are once again questioning the “cozy” relationship of the industry with its regulators. Eight years ago, the FAA stopped directly managing the routine inspection of design and manufacturing, instead simply providing oversight to an industry self-policing program using their own employees and designated airworthiness representatives (DARs) and designated engineering representatives (DERs).
While DARs and DERs have been around for almost as long as the airplane, the FAA vetted and controlled their selection. Today, companies choose and manage them, and the FAA even has difficulty rejecting those who they feel might be unsuitable candidates. That relationship is now coming under greater scrutiny as Congress is asking whether too much power has been delegated from the FAA to industry participants.
There is a built in conflict of interest for employees of a company who are paid by that company, but are expected to wear an FAA hat and potentially disagree with their company’s management. With 3,655 designees, and only around 1,000 FAA employed inspectors, the bulk of regulatory work is conducted by people who may not be able to “rock the boat” too far because they fear for their jobs.
While public examples of problems remain in the shadows, the DOT’s Office of Inspector General criticized the FAA in 2011 for losing control of its oversight and risking safety. In that situation, a designee acting on behalf of the FAA took his employer’s view and approved a fuel system that did not meet FAA standards. It took the FAA over a year to convince the offending manufacturer to suspend the employee from FAA duty, a problem exacerbated because DERs and DARs are now selected and managed, and paid by those they are supposed to regulate.
Complicating the issue is the global supply chain for raw materials, parts, and components for today’s aircraft. With a large number of parts being produced overseas, or domestically from raw materials or parts being sourced internationally, the FAA is unable to send its inspectors around the world to check on each plant. As a result, regulators are relying on the quality control procedures of each company to “catch” any problems before they occur. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen in a timely manner, and problems do emerge.
We have seen situations in which material certifications from foreign countries have been falsified in which subcontractors did not routinely inspect and test those raw materials, instead relying on paperwork. In another situation, we are aware of a company that failed to test the product to the performance standard expected by the OEM, resulting in premature product failures by cutting off testing prematurely.
Now add sequestration and budget cuts into the process, and it becomes difficult even more problematic for the FAA to exert more control over those with delegated authority. Perhaps the answer is a “pay as you go” system, which EASA and other agencies around the world have implemented, rather than the “free” system offered in the United States. User fees to generate an appropriate level of security might be an appropriate policy change for Congress to consider, with higher fees for “high priority” or “rush” projects. This would place the burden of costs to those who use the resources, and provide a mechanism that ensures that the industry continues to adhere to the highest levels of quality and safety, while obtaining timely oversight from the FAA.