By Capt. 'Sully' Sullenberger
For most of the history of powered flight, the United States has been a world leader in aviation.
This nation’s aviation regulatory body, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has long been the gold standard of safety regulation in global aviation, often a template for other nations to follow in technical and safety matters.
Boeing /zigman2/quotes/208579720/composite BA +4.50% has long been the world’s preeminent airplane maker.
But now, our credibility as leaders in aviation is being damaged. Boeing and the FAA have been found wanting in this ugly saga that began years ago but has come home to roost with two terrible fatal crashes, with no survivors, in less than five months, on a new airplane type, the Boeing 737 Max 8, something that is unprecedented in modern aviation history.
‘For too many years, the FAA has not been provided budgets sufficient to ensure appropriate oversight of a rapidly growing global aviation industry.’
For too many years, the FAA has not been provided budgets sufficient to ensure appropriate oversight of a rapidly growing global aviation industry. Staffing has not been adequate for FAA employees to oversee much of the critically important work of validating and approving aircraft certification. Instead, much of the work has been outsourced by designating aircraft manufacturer employees to do the work on behalf of the FAA. This, of course, has created inherent conflicts of interest, when employees working for the company whose products must be certified to meet safety standards are the ones doing much of the work of certifying them. There simply are not nearly enough FAA employees to do this important work in-house.
To make matters worse, there is too cozy a relationship between the industry and the regulators. And in too many cases, FAA employees who rightly called for stricter compliance with safety standards and more rigorous design choices have been overruled by FAA management, often under corporate or political pressure.
Let me be clear, without effective leadership and support from political leaders in the administration, the FAA does not have sufficient independence to be able to do its job, which is to keep air travelers and crews safe. Oversight must mean accountability, or it means nothing.
‘Boeing, in developing the 737 Max 8, obviously felt intense competitive pressure to get the new aircraft to market as quickly as possible.’
Boeing, in developing the 737 Max 8, obviously felt intense competitive pressure to get the new aircraft to market as quickly as possible. When flight testing revealed an issue with meeting the certification standards, they developed a fix, Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), but did not tell airline pilots about it. In mitigating one risk, they seem to have created another, greater risk.
After the crash of Lion Air 610 last October, it was apparent that this new risk needed to be effectively addressed. It has been reported that Boeing pushed back in discussions with the FAA about the extent of changes that would be required, and after the second crash, of Ethiopian 302, the Boeing CEO reached out to the U.S. President to try to keep the 737 Max 8 from being grounded in the U.S. The new fix still has not been fielded, nearly five months after Lion Air. It almost certainly could have been done sooner, and should have been.
Boeing has focused on trying to protect its product and defend its stance, but the best way, indeed the only way, to really protect one’s brand or product is to protect the people who use it. We must not forget that the basis of business, what makes business possible, is trust.
Estimates are that Boeing likely will face additional costs of several billion dollars because of these recent crashes and the decisions made several years ago that led up to them. This case is a validation of something that I have long understood, that there is a strong business case for quality and safety, that it is always better and cheaper to do it right instead of doing it wrong and trying to repair the damage after the fact, and when lives are lost, there is no way to repair the damage.
And in this ultra-cost-competitive global aviation industry, when it comes to costs, nothing is more costly than an accident. Nothing.
Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger is a safety expert, author and speaker on leadership and culture. He is also a retired airline pilot who, on Jan. 15, 2009, safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in New York when both engines lost power after they were struck by a flock of birds. All 155 people on board survived.
Barron’s Group Experts is a commentary series produced by Barron’s and MarketWatch.