How Many Whistleblowers Does It Take to Make Flying Safe?
Answer: at least seven. Seven whistleblowers who are either current or former employees of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Boeing, and GE came forward to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (“Committee”) to report safety issues related to “aircraft safety and certification environment at the FAA and within the industry.” In response to these whistleblowers sharing their experiences as aviation industry engineers and the safety issues they observed, the Committee drafted the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act, which was enacted in December 2020.
Whistleblowers initially reported concerns to the Committee following two Boeing 737 MAX-8 catastrophes in 2018 and 2019, incidents which the Committee investigated extensively. The Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act extended Federal whistleblower protections to employees, contractors, and suppliers of aircraft manufacturers. Since the passage of the Act, whistleblowers continued to engage with the Committee, alerting the Committee to continuing issues within the aviation industry.
According to the December 2021 “Aviation Safety Whistleblower Report” from the Democratic staff of the Committee, the major issues whistleblowers highlighted include:
Undue pressure on line engineers and production staff
One of the whistleblowers reported being in an “untenable position” of both having to test for the FAA and prepare aircraft engines to pass the FAA’s tests.
Line engineers with technical expertise ignored
Engineers who raised safety concerns and supply chain non-compliances at Boeing were “sidelined.”
Boeing oversight office in Seattle lacks enough safety engineers
Office was “chronically understaffed with only 25 engineers and technical project managers to oversee approximately 1,500 Boeing engineers who act on behalf of FAA.”
FAA certification processes do not require compliance with latest airworthiness standards
One whistleblower pointed out that the FAA was using “dated airworthiness standards” to certify aircraft safety and that some issues were “creatively hidden or outright withheld” from the FAA.
FAA’s strong oversight eroded under the Organization Design Authorization (ODA) program
The report alleges that the FAA has “over time, increasingly delegated away its authority” which leads to “safety issues at significant costs” in human lives and reputational harm.
FAA and industry struggle with technical engineering capacity necessary for complex aircraft systems
Automation in aviation manufacturing presents new safety challenges and demands “a significant amount of technical knowledge at the FAA,” said one of the whistleblowers.
If You See Something, Say Something
Fortunately, the whistleblowers offered recommendations for actions the FAA could take to implement fully the key provisions of the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act. They proposed more direct supervision of ODA staff by the FAA and that the FAA should ensure engineers with sufficient technical expertise are part of Boeing’s Aviation Safety Oversight Office (BASOO). As the whistleblowers pinpointed that some of the safety issues with the Boeing 737 MAX-8 may have stemmed from rushed production schedules and “undue pressure,” they recommended a review of Boeing’s safety culture. Other sections of the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act that the whistleblowers allege FAA has not yet addressed include: requiring that aviation manufacturers implement safety management systems, limiting delegation of certain safety tasks, performing an annual safety culture assessment within the Administration, and mandating an “integrated aircraft safety analysis of designs.”
These whistleblowers are a prime example of industry insiders using their expertise to highlight safety issues and possible wrongdoing that affect taxpayers (funding the FAA) and consumers (everyone who flies on an airplane). The Committee’s report notes, “Whistleblowers perform a critical public service by exposing wrongdoing in the government and private sector.” Aviation manufacturing insiders with information about safety violations are encouraged to step forward, as they can help thwart wrongdoing and preserve the future of safe air travel.