As Congress rushed to pass the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill and the $908 billion COVID-19 emergency relief package that went with it, one piece of legislation attached to the massive package is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the aviation industry.
The Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act reforms the Federal Aviation Administration’s process for the certification of new aircraft. The law requires the FAA to take back more responsibility for oversight of aircraft systems design and manufacture, and to revise the so-called organization delegation authorization (ODA) program, which allows the FAA to delegate to approvals of design requirements to teams of the manufacturers’ employees, known as ODA units.
In particular, the agency is called on to revamp how the ODA program with Boeing is structured. While the final version of the bill leaves the idea of ODAs in place, it requires the agency to adopt more stringent oversight of the ODA program.
In addition to tightening up the management of ODA units and ordering an independent review of Boeing’s ODA, safety culture and ability to perform FAA-delegated functions, a summary of the bill by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure says the legislation also requires:
• Direct FAA approval of organization delegation authorization unit members.
• Appointment of FAA safety advisors to oversee and communicate with ODA team members throughout the certification process.
• Adoption of safety management systems by aviation manufacturers.
• Comprehensive safety analysis of aircraft design changes.
Among the other safety and oversight provisions, the bill strengthens international pilot training standards. Furthermore, the act also authorizes civil penalties for supervisors who interfere with or pressure ODA unit members to approve designs, and provides new confidential reporting channels at the FAA and whistleblower protections for manufacturer employees.
The bipartisan legislation is the result of separate investigations in both the House and the Senate into the certification process around Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft. In 2019, the jetliner was involved in two deadly crashes that killed 346 people.
Congressional investigators found that the FAA had relinquished too much authority for certifying the safety of the Max to Boeing. According to a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee report, “Boeing failed in its design and development of the Max, and the FAA failed in its oversight of Boeing and its certification of the aircraft.”
Following the fatal crashes, the aircraft was grounded worldwide for 20 months, during which time Boeing did extensive reengineering of the flight control systems and other factors implicated in the accidents.
In November, the FAA rescinded the order grounding the aircraft, giving the 737 Max the go-ahead to return to service. By December the aircraft had begun operating on regular flights again, with American Airlines the first US carrier to relaunch its Max fleet at the end of the year.