More credibility needed in the airline industry

It was up and away for the Boeing 737 Max on Dec. 29, the first commercial flight in the U.S. since the fleet was grounded in March 2019 following two fatal crashes. American Airlines flew the once ubiquitous plane, an industry staple, from Miami to New York and back again.

The plane was allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration to take wing after Boeing made changes to an automated flight-control system that had been implicated in crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed, collectively, 346 people. In both crashes, it was determined the system pushed down the nose of the plane repeatedly, based on faulty sensor readings, and the pilots couldn’t regain control.

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The plane may have been fixed (some continue to have doubts), but confidence in the industry and its regulators, well, that’s another story.

Government leaders have faulted Boeing and the FAA for alarming failures in the certification process as well as evidence that Boeing employees had raised safety concerns that were ignored. In sum, the set of fatal crashes exposed a concerning relationship between the company and the regulators tasked with overseeing it.

The flying public yearns for and deserves more transparency and more confidence in the airline oversight process. Credibility of the industry and the FAA is at stake.

A first step would include Boeing releasing nonproprietary information on changes made to the Max 737 and the data behind those changes. The investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the second fatal Max crash, still is incomplete and that has been cited as a reason by Boeing and regulators not to release all documents related to the tragedy. It’s not a good enough reason.

Equally important — arguably more so — is that the FAA must do some image rebuilding based on real change. The public must be confident that the regulators actually are regulating.

And then there are the lawmakers. The Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act of 2020, introduced in June, continues to crawl through the federal lawmaking process with the Senate Commerce Committee approving the legislation Nov. 18. The process is unfolding too slowly. This needed reform must be expedited and the reform must fully address the specter of company influence and conflict of interest in the certification process. Additionally, it must enhance whistleblower protection.

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The airline industry is in tatters and not only because of the deadly pandemic. It is in tatters because the public is understandably suspicious of the cozy relationship between the FAA and the companies it is tasked with regulating. This can and must be fixed.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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