FAA Turns Over Increasing Inspection Authority to Manufacturers

Four years ago, the NTSB questioned whether manufactures like Boeing should be allowed to self-certify that their aircraft designs meet FAA requirements.  The NTSB suggested that “self-certification” may have contributed to the battery fires that were being experienced on Boeing’s 787s.  After all, it’s the FAA's job to make an independent determination that an aircraft design is safe.  It makes little sense to pass that job to the manufacturer, who is hardly independent.

The FAA’s response was to delegate even more authority to manufacturers.  In fact, the GAO reports that 90% of all aircraft certification work is now outsourced to the manufacturers themselves. 

How is that working out?  Not surprisingly, not so well.  According to documents obtained by the Seattle Times,  through 2015, Boeing was fined $13 million to settle FAA proceedings arising from falsification of certification and repair work.  The Seattle Times noted that one Boeing mechanic told FAA investigators that he had been entering false data into aircraft inspection records for at least seven years.

NTSB Questions FAA's Practice of Allowing Boeing to Self-Certify its Designs

The FAA allows Boeing to certify its own design work.  That means that, at least to some extent,  Boeing now regulates itself.  That never seemed like such a great idea to me.  Afte787 batteries - melted down (left) and undamaged (right)r all, isn't it the FAA's job to make an independent determination that an aircraft design is safe?  Does it make sense for the FAA to allow Boeing -- or any manufacturer -- to grant FAA certification to itself?

Now, the NTSB seems to agree.  In discussing whether the FAA's "self-certification" policy played a role in Boeing's 787 battery problems, NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman hinted that maybe the FAA isn't doing its job:

This is an issue when you have a regulator with limited resources. . .You can delegate some of the action, but you can’t delegate responsibility.”

A regulator that allows a manufacturer to certify its own designs isn't a regulator at all.  

Aircraft Fuel Gauges Are Supposed To Actually Work

Running out of gas is a leading cause of piston aircraft engine failures. So you'd think that pilots would have zero tolerance for the shoddy fuel gauges installed in many aircraft, such as the ones installed in the Cirrus SR22.  But instead, they tend to make excuses for the manufacturers. "It would be too expensive to make gauges that work." Or, "you shouldn't trust a fuel gauge anyway." Or, my favorite:

Well, you know, the regulations require that the gauge be accurate only when reading empty."

That last one makes the least sense of all. A pilot doesn't need a gauge to tell him his tanks have just reached "empty." The aircraft has another way of informing the pilot the very moment that happens.

I don't know how thisAircraft fuel gauge stuff about the regulations started.  But I've heard it from dozens of pilots over the years.  Even from those who work for manufacturers, and so should know better. 

The Regulations Do Not Say that the Fuel Gauge Must be Accurate "Only When Reading Zero"

Most aircraft carry "unusable fuel."  For example, perhaps there are three gallons that sit in a fuel line that can't be pumped to the engine. So while the aircraft carries 53 gallons of fuel on board, only 50 are "usable." The federal aviation regulations, not surprisingly, require that the gauge read "zero" when there are three gallons left on the aircraft, since that's when the engine will stop. 

Each fuel quantity indicator must be calibrated to read "zero" during level flight when the quantity of fuel remaining in the tank is equal to the unusable fuel supply . . ."

Put another way, the gauge must read "zero" when there is no usable fuel on board. But it doesn't follow that when there is usable fuel on board, the gauge need not be accurate. 

The Gauge Must Be Accurate At All Fuel Levels.

The regulations require the gauge to show the quantity of usable fuel in each tank "during flight."  It doesn't matter whether there is a quarter tank, a half tank, or a full tank of usable fuel.  The gauge must indicate the quantity accurately. The only time the gauge need not be accurate is when the aircraft is sitting on the ground.

If a fuel indicating system does not comply with the regulations, it is defective. Plain and simple.

The relevant part of the aviation regulations is as follows:

§ 23.1337 Powerplant instruments installation.

     Fuel quantity indication. There must be a means to indicate to the flightcrew members the quantity of usable fuel in each tank during flight. An indicator calibrated in appropriate units and clearly marked to indicate those units must be used. In addition: [] Each fuel quantity indicator must be calibrated to read "zero" during level flight when the quantity of fuel remaining in the tank is equal to the unusable fuel supply. . . 

FAA To Allow Boeing To Self-Certify Its Aircraft Designs

Aviation manufacturers have long argued that victims should not be permitted to sue for aircraft design defects because, before any manufacturer's aircraft leaves the ground, its design has to be approved and certified by the FAA. If the aircraft's design is good enough for the FAA's engineers, they argue, it should be good enough for the court system.  Judges and juries should not be permitted to second guess the FAA.

Aviation attorneys representing victims of air crashes take a different position.  They argue that the FAA "approval" process is not really an independent safety review of an aircraft's design at all.  FAA Certification ProcessRather, the FAA certifies aircraft based largely on the say-so of engineers who, though designated by the FAA, are in fact employees of the manufacturer seeking the certification. The issue of whether an aircraft's design is defective is thus appropriately left to the judgment of an independent jury. In short, the fact that the FAA certified a design doesn't really mean all that much

Now FAA certification of an aircraft's design will mean even less -- at least with regard to Boeing aircraft.  That's because the the FAA will drop out of the certification process completely for certain Boeing products.  Beginning August 31, the FAA will allow Boeing to self-certify its designs. The FAA will not even do the rubber stamping -- Boeing employees will do that too. According to the Seattle Times

The new system increases the authority of the in-house inspectors directly managed by Boeing, allowing them to review new designs, oversee testing to ensure the products meet all applicable standards, and sign off on certification