Acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration Billy Nolen testified on Capitol Hill that he “can say categorically” the Boeing 737 Max is safe – and his agency is also taking steps to ensure its certification process for future aircraft is as well.

Speaking on 8 March before the US Senate committee on commerce, science and transportation in Washington DC, Nolen said his agency has ramped up hiring in the wake of two Boeing 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia and grounded the worldwide fleet of the type between March 2019 and December 2020.

“As of today, we’ve got 7,489 people and plan to take that to 7,775 by the end of this fiscal year, and we’re moving to ensure we’ve got the kind of competencies and skill sets we need to go forward,” Nolen tells a panel of US lawmakers.

Ethiopian 737 Max wreckage

Source: STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Ehtiopian Airlines 737 Max wreckage 

The Federal Aviation Administration has emphasised shoring up its certificate management office for Boeing, Nolen said. The office now has 107 employees, up from 82 some years ago. “We’ve augmented Boeing in particular with another 35 [full-time employees] from other parts of our certification team,” he says.

Both the FAA and Boeing have previously insisted that changes made to the Max in the aftermath of the two fatal crashes make it among the safest jets in operation. 

The hearing centred on the FAA’s response to the Max crashes and its efforts to comply with the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act, which was included in the US government’s fiscal 2021 spending law and signed by former president Donald Trump.

“We have enacted over 60% of the requirements of [the bill] and we are working very purposefully to ensure that we get them all down,” Nolen said. “We are treating aircraft as complex systems with full consideration of how all the elements of the operating system interact. We are integrating human factor considerations more effectively throughout all aspects of the design and certification process.”

Under the new law, the FAA was required to undertake an expert review of its Organization Designation Authorisation (ODA) programme, and $81 million was set aside to help the FAA hire more technical staffers, including engineers, safety inspectors and software experts.

During the hearing, several senators expressed concern with the FAA’s certification team and its ability to keep pace with rapid advancements in aviation technology. The law requires the FAA to ensure its workers have the skills to “adequately understand the safety implications of, and oversee the adoption of, new or innovative technologies, materials and procedures”. It also instructs the FAA to set minimum qualifications for ODA staffers. 

Senator Ted Budd of North Carolina honed in on the expertise of the FAA’s certification staff. “One motivating factor behind the certification reform bill was that FAA employees had insufficient knowledge of the 737 Max’s MCAS – or Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System – which led to two tragic crashes,” he says. One purpose of the bill was to “increase FAA’s ability to understand evermore complex technical innovations during the certification process.” 

Boeing gave Max jets the MCAS to counter a tendency to pitch nose-up under certain circumstances. The two crashes were preceeded by system failures that activated MCAS, which caused the jets to dive. Investigations concluded that a cacophony of cockpit warnings may have confused the pilots.

In January, Boeing pleaded not guilty in court to charges that it defrauded the FAA as part of the certification of the 737 Max. But in a 2021 settlement, Boeing had signed off on a “Statement of Facts” that said Boeing employees “deceived the FAA” about the MCAS system that contributed to the fatal crashes. As part of the settlement, Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion in penalties and compensation to customers and to relatives of those killed in the crashes.

737 Max 7

Source: Boeing

During the 8 March hearing, Budd pressed Nolen on the status of the FAA’s hiring and training strategies for oversight of complex technical systems.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the area of how we continue to train,” Nolen responds. “We are working to complete a comprehensive review of our senior technical experts programme. We’ve got 14 chief scientists and technical advisors, and we have another four technical experts…on staff.”

“At the same time, we want to make sure we’re not solving for yesterday,” he continues. “As technology evolves, especially with all the novel entrants coming into the market…we need those requisite skill sets, as well.”

Budd also pointed to the committee’s review released in December 2020 that found FAA inspectors tasked with reviewing operational training requirements for the 737 Max were insufficiently qualified.

“The aircraft certification bill requires airline pilots to be more involved at the design stage for new and refreshed aircraft models,” he said. “So how has the FAA increased pilot participation in operational valuations for aircraft that are awaiting certification?”

The FAA uses active airline pilots from around the world with varying degrees of expertise and skill, Nolen says. “We’re also using test pilots as we look to those [Boeing jets] in certification now – the Max 7, the Max 10 as well the 777-9,” he says. “We’re working to make sure our own test pilots have the requisite skills that they need as we get into more complex technology.”

Meanwhile, the FAA is still working to address concerns raised in 2020 by the US Government Accountability Office that the FAA infrequently examined gaps in critical competencies among its safety inspectors and engineers and did not routinely assess its training curriculum for those employees. 

“We have not completed that work yet,” Nolen says. “We do expect it to be done by the end of this year, if not sooner.”