The Federal Aviation Administration, which approved what officials acknowledge was a flawed design implicated in two deadly crashes of the jetliner, found itself facing criticism from regulators around the world — a stunning turnabout for an organization accustomed to global deference.
In the wake of the disasters, the FAA is revising how it reviews new aircraft after panels of outside experts cited organizational deficiencies. Congress, which conducted its own investigations, is poised to cut the FAA’s reliance on inspectors working for manufacturers such as Boeing and may provide money for the agency to hire more engineers.
The changes have huge implications for one of America’s leading industries as well as the safety of air travel. After decades in which the industry has sought more flexibility from the FAA, adding new restrictions could make approvals more costly or slow down the oversight process.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Special Briefing via Telephone with Steve Dickson Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Administrator Dickson: Thank you, and hello everyone. Thanks for joining us. As you know, this morning the FAA took the final steps that will lead to the Boeing 737 MAX safely returning to commercial service in the very near future. And I’m here to share with you how we determined that the MAX meets FAA safety standards and is ready to take to the skies.
And when we think about Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, 610 crashed more than two years ago and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 tragically crashed less than six months later, and this resulted in the worldwide grounding of the 737-8 and -9 MAX fleets in March of 2019.
And right at the outset, I want to say that a day doesn’t go by that we don’t think about the families, and friends, and the victims aboard both aircraft, and I say a prayer for them every day. When I met with the families I pledged that we would work our hardest to honor their loved ones by improving the margins of safety for aviation around the world, and I’m here to tell you today that we’ve done that and we’re continuing to do so, and we will continue to do so in the future.
We followed a methodical and deliberate safety process that ultimately took 20 months to complete. During this time FAA people meticulously worked on the fixes that were necessary to address the issues that played a role in the tragic loss of 346 lives. Our mission was crystal clear: to develop solutions that prevent accidents like Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian 302 from ever happening again.
From the start of this process we worked very closely with our foreign counterparts on every aspect of the return to service. We thoroughly evaluated the certification of the aircraft’s automated flight control system. We sought and incorporated input from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General, our foreign civil aviation partners, the aviation industry, and members of the public.
We published a proposed Airworthiness Directive specifying design changes that must be made before the aircraft could return to commercial service, and we reviewed and evaluated comments from the public. We also took comments on a draft Flight Standardization Board Report concerning pilot training for the aircraft.
Now, these efforts were necessary to restore confidence in our aviation system, for the public to know that it is safe to fly on the aircraft. Along those lines, I pledged early in my tenure to pilot the Boeing 737 MAX myself and I promised that I wouldn’t unground it until I would feel comfortable allowing my own family to fly on it. And in late September, I completed the MAX training recommended by the Joint Operation and Evaluation Board, which included practicing the new emergency procedures in the 737 MAX full flight simulator. After that, I piloted the aircraft for about two hours to evaluate the handling of the aircraft and the functionality of the flight control system.
So based on all the activities that we’ve undertaken during the past 20 months, and my personal experience flying the airplane, I can tell you that my family and your family will be safe on this aircraft. And that’s why this morning I was confident to personally sign the ungrounding order and put in motion additional steps, which are, among other things, issuing the final Airworthiness Directive, alerting the international community that we have done so, and issuing MAX training requirements for U.S. operators.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the MAX will be immediately in commercial service. I still must approve the 737 MAX pilot training program for every U.S. airline operating the MAX. Airlines will also need to perform specific maintenance tasks on the MAX aircraft that have been in storage for so long. We will also retain our authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all new 737 MAX aircraft manufactured since we put the grounding order in place.
We’ll continue to engage with domestic and international stakeholders as everyone takes the steps required to safely return the aircraft to service. And once the MAX is flying again, we’ll continue to work closely with our foreign civil aviation partners to evaluate any potential additional safety enhancements, such as synthetic speed sensors. We also will conduct the same rigorous, continued operational safety oversight of the MAX that we conduct on other aircraft makes and models.
Now while I’m confident that the MAX is safe, inflight problems occasionally occur with every make and model of commercial aircraft, and for that reason it’s inevitable that at some time in the future a Boeing 737 MAX will return to its origination airport, make a precautionary landing or a divert due to an actual or suspected inflight issue. And while the FAA evaluates every such event involving a U.S. airline, I’ll point out that it’s very important to differentiate between these routine events and the acute safety issues that led to the loss of lives and the grounding of the MAX.
We’re also leading forward with the lessons that we’ve learned. We’re working on a number of systemic process improvements and, with our partners in the international aviation community, taking a fresh look at foundational safety capabilities such as pilot training that will enable us to continue to raise the bar on aviation safety around the globe. That’s what the traveling public expects and they are right to do so. They also expect to experience the same level of safety no matter where in the world they’re flying.
We, the FAA, and our counterparts in the aviation industry worldwide have a shared stake in making that happen. If passengers don’t feel the system is safe they will not fly. Safety is simply the foundation for aviation; without it, you have nothing. That’s why safety is always the FAA’s top priority. The traveling public expects and deserves nothing less.
Question: I was wondering how you’re going to handle the designee program now. Are there changes within this Airworthiness Directive there, and will there be differences in how you’ll do things in future certifications of aircraft?
Administrator Dickson: Well, that’s a good question. After the – certainly with respect to the MAX, we have essentially handled all the compliance activity and really haven’t delegated anything in this process.
Going forward, we are essentially at this point on a road map that – where we’ve taken the various reviews that have been done with, in particular, the Secretary of Transportation’s Special Committee Review that looked at all of the ODAs and all – the entire certification process and making changes there.
So I’m not – one of the things that we are instituting is we are going to continue to use the Technical Advisory Board to independently review the FAA’s work. With respect to designees, in particular, we will continue to use designees but we will be – we are implementing various measures to make sure there’s a free flow of communication and data between the manufacturer and the FAA, and that’s really what safety management systems are all about. So you will see some changes there with coming certification projects as those systems mature.
Question: I didn’t know if you could give us your assessment as to whether and to what extent Boeing has changed as a result of these tragedies, and are you confident that the company has made sufficient changes to its engineering processes, safety monitoring systems, and internal culture to prevent crashes like these and the ensuing other lapses from happening again?
Administrator Dickson: Andrew, it’s a good question. What I will – what I’m – what I will say today is that I think it’s evident and from my perspective it was absolutely essential to reset the FAA’s relationship with Boeing, and we have done that. I’m very confident that we have done that. I have met with their senior leadership and we know – told them what their – what my expectations are in terms of the safety processes in the systems that they need to have in place. And this is something that takes some period of time, but we will continue to interact with them and oversee them as their safety regulator and with the appropriate type of relationship. So that will be something that will be a continued top area of focus.
Question: Can you speak to the airworthiness of the MAX with the MCAS disabled? As I understand it, the MCAS is to be disabled if there is a disagreement between the angle of the tech sensors. And I’m not clear whether the airworthiness depends on the MCAS being active ?
Administrator Dickson: Well, Tanya, thanks for the question. The MAX is – so when the Speed Trim System is disabled, the MAX does not – it meets airworthiness requirements with MCAS installed because essentially at the edges of the flight envelope, there have – to have the correct feel of the flight controls, in other words, for the yoke to not get too light in the pilot’s hands and to get the expected control response, MCAS modifies handling qualities there. But if it’s disabled, the airplane is very flyable. And in fact, you really don’t even notice anything in the normal part of flight envelope because MCAS doesn’t operate within that regime.
So it’s a situation where you would not dispatch an airplane without MCAS because it is required for dispatch. But if there’s a problem or if the system becomes inactivated during flight, the airplane can continue to its destination and land no problem. As a matter of fact, I saw that for myself on my test flight out at – out in Seattle a few weeks ago.
Question: if there haven’t been any changes made to the FAA’s process, I’m wondering how the flying public can feel confident in the assessment made that these MAX jets aren’t that safe to fly ?
Administrator Dickson: Well, so let me be clear. There have been significant changes. As a matter of fact, this is an unprecedented situation. This airplane has undergone an unprecedented level of scrutiny by the FAA. As I said earlier, we have not left anything to chance here. We have tens of thousands of man-hours, and we’ve devoted about 40 of our people, engineers, test pilots, inspectors to this full-time over the last 20 months. So this really is an unprecedented situation.
And the other thing is that we have – the design changes that we have overseen make it impossible for these accident scenarios to reoccur. So the airplane, along with the rest of the 737 family, in my opinion – well, it’s, I think, indisputable that this is the most scrutinized transport category aircraft in aviation history. I would put it up against just about anything.
So now we are in the process of – we are a culture of continuous improvement, and I will be the first to say that every day we need to improve our safety processes. We can never be satisfied with what we are doing now, and we can never be complacent. So we have used the learnings from this event along with our own data and our own processes and the outside independent reviews and, frankly, our collaboration with our foreign aviation partners to come out of this much stronger. And we will continue to do that.
And we will continue to execute on the reforms that we have put in place. I talked about the TAB earlier. The TAB independently reviewed the FAA’s work, consisted of a number of technical experts who were not involved in any way, shape, or form in the initial certification. And in addition to FAA experts, we had the Air Force, NASA, the Volpe Center, and others. And we will continue to use that process as a way to crosscheck our work going forward.
There are a number of other reforms that we already have underway, and I would refer you to our response to the Secretary of Transportation Special Committee Report for a good summary of those 10 focus areas.
Question: I’d just like to know if the FAA accepts that the original certification of the MAX missed the flaws in MCAS. Do you accept that, yes, the certification process that went on then did somehow fail?
Administrator Dickson: The redesigned version of MCAS and all the system implications, I would agree with that. And I would say that one of the things that we have highlighted, if you look at our response to the special committee report, the JATR also talked about this. It came down to a large degree to fragmented communications between the flight test and operational sides within Boeing and then also between Boeing and the FAA. And that’s one of the things that we have put measures in place to make sure does not happen again, to make sure that we’ve got a solid human factors and an operational perspective throughout an entire certification process.
Question: Has anybody ever been held accountable, fired, for their role in certifying a claim with a flawed design, or was anybody fired or disciplined or held accountable for a crew being – or allowing the 737 MAX to continue flying after the first crash in Indonesia? If not, why not?
Administrator Dickson: Well, I would say I’m not going to talk about personnel actions. I will say that there have – over a period of years, there are changes in leaders. And I think we all hold ourselves accountable each and every day. And I never want to take the easy way out. It’s real – it’s easy to point the finger or blame at individuals or things, and I’m interested in improving processes and continuing to raise the bar on safety. And if I see a need to make a change in certain areas, I will do that. And in fact, we are doing that. We are – we stood up an ODA office. We are moving people around to different roles. But I don’t want to take the easy way out.
Question: With the MAX service return parameters finalized, can you provide updates on FAA’s plans on related changes to 737 NG fleet software and training as well as the synthetic AOA being added to the MAX?
Administrator Dickson: Those are both great questions. For the 737 NG, we’ll use our continued operational safety process and such an in-service fleet. We do have an interest in, I think, in making sure there is consistency with training and systems across the NG fleet as well as the MAX fleet. So that is work that we will undertake going forward.
And then really for the second question, again, these are discussions that we will undertake from – within our continued operational safety process. We are going to do this with the certification management team, the four states of design – Brazil, Canada and EASA. And as we would do for any fleet, we will continue to look for opportunities to put safety enhancements in.
So I don’t want to – I don’t want to – it’s not wise to predetermine a specific outcome, but we are looking at the issues and we’ll let the data and information drive us to what the solution is.
Question: Do you foresee these changes lengthening the timeline for typical certification programs? And I realize this work on the MAX is hardly representative, but it did take a fairly long period of time. So, I mean, going forward on new programs, are we likely to see a slightly longer or whatever kind of increase in the time frame?
Administrator Dickson: I’ll give you a short answer and then a little longer answer. I’ll say we don’t know. We will have the same philosophy that we’ll take as long as it takes. We won’t be on a particular timeline.
Now, what I would say is all of these efforts have to do with – or a lot of the focus really here has to do with putting ourselves in a position – and this is not just the FAA; this is around the world – in a position where we are looking at safety issues in the most data-driven and systematic way possible. And so you will see this if you go – if you go back and you look at the – our response to the special committee report, you will see – I think it’s five themes. And you’ll talk about – I talked in there about taking a holistic approach to aircraft certification.
And what that means is, currently and historically, there is sometimes a tendency to look at certification in terms of a little too much in terms of compliance. And how do we look at how all the systems integrate? And how do we put ourselves in a position so that we can exercise oversight from a systematic perspective and not just a line-item-by-line-item perspective?
And that’s one of the things that we need to do. And safety management systems will help us do that. And to the extent that the manufacturer is pushing data and information to us on a more regular basis rather than on more of a transactional basis, I don’t know that it necessarily increases the amount of time, but I think it does improve the systematic rigor of the process. And that’s what we’re shooting for in terms of improving and moving to really the next level of safety with aircraft certification. I wouldn’t say longer, but I would say better.
Question: Okay. Great. To my way of thinking, the biggest tragedy of this whole episode is the fact that after the first crash it was evident to everybody in the aviation community that you had a fleet-wide problem that could lead to a catastrophic loss, as we saw there. And yet the aircraft was not grounded in that period of time. Can you tell us today that that might be – there would be a different outcome? If you have a fleet-wide issue that has that potentially catastrophic implication, would you ground the plane immediately and not wait for a second crash?
Administrator Dickson: Well, it’s – I appreciate the question, You have to act on the data and the information that you have available at the time. And to the extent that we have higher fidelity data, then I think that you might be able to make a different decision. Based on what we know now, I would agree with you, but we didn’t have access to all of that information at the time.
And you also have to remember that the design of the aircraft was not the only causal factor. We had maintenance issues and we had also, frankly, issues with how the airplane was operated. So we’ve got to take a look at all of those and how they all interact. That’s why our solution here goes beyond a simple redesign of MCAS functionality. We are also looking at different failure modes, the flight control computers doing dynamic comparisons with each other, some different autopilot shutoff functionality with a stick shaker, and then also pilot training and qualification and maintenance actions out there as well.
So all of that was implicated in the Lion Air accident. And looking at it now it’s fairly clear but I would not say that it was at the time. But in a future where we are – we have probably higher fidelity data, either surveillance data or other data streaming off the airplane that might be able to tell us what was going on, that – you might come to a different decision in that case.
Question: I just want to know from you what sort of timeframe you’re are looking at, if things go smoothly, that regulators outside the United States would then approve this aircraft. Will you be actively engaged in that effort as the United States regulator? Or will that be left to Boeing?
And also, my understanding is that there is around 360 of the type that is in the hands of the lessors and airlines and another 400 parked at Boeing. So we are looking at maybe 760 of these aircraft actually having to go through the maintenance and the upgrade to be able to come out back into service. Is that going to take years to get that volume back up? So I would appreciate your point of view on this point. Thank you.
Administrator Dickson: First of all, yes, I am making a number of calls today, and engaged both within the U.S. and around the world. And we are planning on, between now and the first week of December we have, I believe it’s five international outreach sessions planned with the regulators around the world. And we will include everyone who is either a regulator that has an operating airline with a MAX or where any of the air navigation service providers – the airspace where the airports where the MAX may be flying into.
Now if you step back for a moment and we look at the four states of design – the U.S., Canada, EASA in Europe, primarily, and the – Brazil, there is very little daylight between us, and they serve – for a U.S. manufactured product, we serve as the certifying authority; they serve as the validating authority.
And in this particular case, one of the things I am really proud of is the transparency that we have had with them throughout this process and the fact that we have been locked arminarm for the last 20 months. And I believe that, as painful and as arduous as the process has been, it has really strengthened the cooperation between these regulators. And I think it will put us in a much stronger position globally for aviation safety going forward.
So I am very proud of that. We have got to keep that up. But I think that that’s a big step in the right direction. So it will – the UK CAA, the EASA, regulators around the world we are working with very closely. And I would expect them to be able to issue their validation decisions probably within a matter of days, but I don’t want to speak for them. So we’ll have to see how that – how that proceeds.
In terms of the number of airplanes, your numbers are pretty close to what I have. And I am certainly aware of magnitude. And part of the outreach sessions and our work with the airlines and with Boeing is to make sure that the attention that needs to be paid to these airplanes – because they have been in storage and they haven’t been operating – that they get the care that they need before they return to the skies, and that the maintenance that needs to be done, the modifications that need to be done are accomplished correctly.
So we are working with regulators around the world to do that and to make sure that that information is disseminated. With respect to the airplanes at Boeing, we have plenty of — we will be scrutinizing and inspecting each [inaudible] as it comes out, at least for the time being, and issuing individual airworthiness certificates for the airplanes that Boeing has yet to deliver to its customers. And we have already been in contact with them for the last several months on this, and we have our inspectors lined up. And we have more capacity than Boeing has airplanes that it needs to deliver. So we will be able to support Boeing’s planned delivery schedule to its customers.
Question: I was curious if you have had a chance to talk to any of the families that lost loved ones in the two crashes? Certainly, some of the families on Ethiopia 302 have been pretty vocal that they don’t feel like enough was done to this airplane for it to fly, particularly with the synthetic AOA sensor not being in place and some of their longstanding design concerns that they have expressed at several of the congressional hearings ?
Administrator Dickson: Well, thanks for the question, Kris. I have spoken with them on several occasions in the past. And we have a liaison who keeps in continual communication, as events dictate over the months. I have not talked with them today, but I plan to later on this afternoon.
And in terms of what I would say is, essentially, the design changes eliminate the possibility of an accident occurring that is in any way similar to the Lion Air and Ethiopian accidents. That’s the bottom line. And the process, as I said earlier, has been extremely transparent. It’s been open and collaborative. I’m proud of that. We’ve worked closely with a number of review bodies. I mentioned the TAB, which did an independent look and used its own process to review our certification work. And we have worked sidebyside with the foreign authorities. And I have fulfilled the commitment that I made to complete the training and fly the aircraft.
So this is the most heavily scrutinized transport aircraft in history. I am fully confident that the aircraft is safe. And I can’t imagine the pain of losing a loved one this way. I understand that emotion and that passion. I mean, it’s incomprehensible to me for that to happen. And so it has motivated us to leave no stone unturned. But I am fully confident that the aircraft is safe, and I would put my own family on it, and we will fly on it.
Question: Is there going be a new level of scrutiny within the FAA for if you get future MCASlike systems, are you going to be more skeptical about whether these kinds of systems are needed?
Administrator Dickson: First of all, I actually mentioned this to somebody yesterday. Skepticism in aviation is a very important attribute to have. You always need to be a little skeptical as a pilot or an engineer. Don’t take things at face value. So, again, I would – it’s important when we talk about how we approach the level of scrutiny, we’re – we don’t want to be doing the same thing more rigorously. We don’t want to be doing – we don’t want to try to be running faster or jumping higher. We want to do it better. We want to be more systematic. We want to be more datadriven. We want to be more driven by process.
And so – and in doing this, one of the things that was not done sufficiently was understanding all of the interdependencies between this subset, MCAS, of the speed trim system and all of the human factors and the other aspects of the flight control system on the aircraft. And doing that system safety assessment in an integrated fashion is really important, and it was done in this portion of the process. That’s something that needs to be revisited going forward and it’s something that we are really focused on: taking that systematic approach.