FAA defends its reliance on aircraft makers to certify jets

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Under fire from lawmakers on Capitol Hill over the two deadly Boeing crashes, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday defended the agency's practice of relying on aircraft makers to help certify their own planes for flight.

Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said the strategy has "consistently produced safe aircraft designs for decades." And he said the agency would need 10,000 more employees and an additional $1.8 billion a year to do all the work now done by designated employees of the companies it regulates.

News4Jax aviation analyst Ed Booth pointed out that over the history of the aviation industry, regulating authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration have relied on the manufacturers to certify their own products.

"Some would view that as an adherent conflict of interest but it is a system that has worked well and has produced a remarkable safety record over the years that has only been tarnished very recently," Booth said. "This is very unusual for Boeing to have this type of problem."

Under the self-certifying program, these employees perform tests and inspections needed to win safety approvals, with the FAA overseeing their work. The approach is credited with holding down government costs and speeding the rollout of new models.

But in the wake of disasters involving Boeing's new 737 Max jetliner in Indonesia and Ethiopia, that practice has been seized on as evidence of an overly cozy relationship between the FAA and the industry.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at a Senate subcommittee hearing that delegating safety work to the companies puts "the fox in charge of the henhouse."

The official causes of the crash are still under investigation, but the focus has been on an automatic safety feature that may have incorrectly forced the nose of each plane to dip. Boeing insists its 737 Max planes are safe. It is set to implement a software fix and provided enhanced training for its pilots.

Boeing plans to submit its final compliance documents for the software update to the FAA by the end of the week.

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