Boeing faces FAA investigation over safety programme

US aviation regulators are investigating Boeing after five engineers in a controversial aeroplane certification programme complained of pressure from the company.

The US Federal Aviation Administration formally asked Boeing in November 2018 to address reports from engineers in the Organization Designation Authorization programme that they had experienced “interference or conflicting duties” between their roles as Boeing employees and designated representatives of the federal agency.

The revelation again puts a spotlight on Boeing’s internal culture and the ODA programme, under which the US regulator has outsourced portions of its safety review regime to the companies that it oversees. Both have come in for fierce criticism since two deadly crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, which is currently grounded.

The FAA also issued separate letters of investigation to Boeing in June 2019 and March, informing the Chicago plane maker it potentially violated regulations governing the ODA programme. The agency did not accept Boeing’s response to the first letter and is waiting for an answer to the second.

Boeing said that it takes “allegations of undue pressure very seriously” and is working to resolve them with the FAA.

The news, buried in an inspector-general’s report released on July 1, was first reported by Bloomberg.

The ODA, created in 2003, allows the FAA to designate Boeing employees to act on behalf of the federal government during portions of the process that certifies planes as safe to fly. While the programme allows the FAA to stretch its limited manpower, critics charge it gives Boeing improper influence over certification, since it signs the paychecks of those involved.

The issue of undue pressure that the engineers say they experienced was not directly related to the 737 Max, even though the FAA investigation began the month after Lion Air Flight 610 crashed in October 2018, the inspector-general’s report said.

A flight control system implicated in that crash, as well as another one in Ethiopia five months later, repeatedly forced the nose of the plane downward. The two crashes killed 346 people.

Elected officials have proposed revamping the ODA programme. Senators Roger Wicker and Maria Cantwell introduced a bipartisan bill last month that would require the FAA to set the technical qualifications for employees who are named as designees and approve their appointment. It also would ban limits on designees talking directly with FAA inspectors and require practices that “ensure any reports of undue pressure or regulatory coziness are addressed”.