Yesterday, Boeing announced a software update for the 737 MAX-8, the airliner that was grounded after two crashes and rising concerns about a possible flaw in the plane’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS). Boeing presented the MCAS updates as improvements to the system and has always maintained that the plane is safe. Now the company is asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to certify the updates so the aircraft can be returned to service. This has given lawmakers in Washington, D.C., the opportunity to ask questions about the whole process of aircraft safety certification. As it turns out, the FAA delegates much of the highly complex certification process and even relies heavily on Boeing itself to evaluate whether its planes are safe.
These facts, together with some close relationships between FAA officials and Boeing, has raised concerns about cronyism. It did not take long for lawmakers to raise the prospect of completely overhauling the certification system and giving the whole process exclusively to the federal government in the form of a beefed up FAA. One US senator even sounded the alarm that the system was “riddled with flaws,” adding that relying on Boeing for the safety assessment of its own planes is putting the “fox in charge of the henhouse.”
So who should decide whether the 737 MAX is safe? This is a question worth asking, and changes to the FAA’s certification process may be necessary, especially if Boeing has been receiving preferential treatment over other manufacturers vying for government approval. But why should we expect that a government agency, even one as skilled and experienced as the FAA, would be better at evaluating an aircraft’s safety entirely independent of the manufacturer’s own evaluations? The kneejerk suggestion that we commit the entire process to the FAA seems like another example of the mindset that the federal government does all things well and can become omnicompetent—provided it has enough funding. The FAA reports that it would need an additional $1.8 billion and 10,000 more employees in order to conduct the entire certification process on its own. Undoubtedly there are some who would not flinch at those numbers, but rather see them as simply the price of safety, which is ultimately priceless.
Safety is indeed priceless, but it is also not absolutely achievable. This is the case whether you’re crossing the street or flying to Paris. In fact, the FAA has a long history of relying on aircraft manufacturers to evaluate their own aircraft, with the agency’s close oversight, of course. And this process has a track record of increasing the safety of air travel in the US. Modern airliners are incredibly complex and contain parts and systems built by dozens of other manufacturers. So who knows best whether a Boeing aircraft is safe? The people at Boeing—along with the people at GE Aviation and at all the other companies that designed, built, and tested it and its components. And who stands to lose the most if the aircraft is deemed unsafe and is mothballed the world over? All the same folks. This is evident both from the hit that Boeing’s stock took in the wake of the MAX’s safety concerns and from Boeing’s efforts to defend their product. The people at Boeing know that there are other airliner manufacturers who are eager to offer a better, safer option. Airbus is, of course, the other major player in the market, but it’s not just a two-horse race.
This is not to suggest that there should be no government oversight or regulation of aircraft safety. The government has a legitimate interest in protecting the lives of its citizens. But Boeing has an interest in passenger safety as well—and perhaps even a greater interest—since the company’s very existence depends on the safety of its aircraft. So we should be careful not to remove what is arguably the most interested and most knowledgeable party, the manufacturer, from decisions about aircraft safety.
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