Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III has penned a scathing new op-ed for Baron’s assailing Boeing and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
First, he bemoans that the FAA is understaffed and underfunded. To compensate, he points out that the FAA routinely delegates critical safety tests to aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, which results in a conflict of interest.
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.
He doesn’t blame the FAA for deliberate malfeasance. Instead, he argues the FAA has simply not been empowered to do its job. He also argues that career civil servants at the FAA can only do so much when the political appointments over them are not interested in accountability.
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.
The bulk of his wrath, however, is reserved for Boeing.
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.
That’s true only in theory. As I wrote about yesterday, most airlines have nowhere to turn but to Boeing since there is effectively no alternate choice.
And there’s pity too. Sullenberger points out that Boeing saved a small amount by cutting safety corners but will pay a high larger amount in terms of damages, canceled orders, and bad publicity from the two 737 MAX 8 crashes.
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.
Sullenberger is certainly correct that the relationship between the FAA and Boeing is too cozy. He’s also correct that it seems implausible it has taken Boeing so long after the Lion Air crash to offer a fix for its 737 MAX 8. Still, my question remains did the pilots–in both the Lion Air and Ethiopian flights–disengage autopilot? Without absolving Boeing from any responsibility for what appears to be a design defect, did the pilots just let autopilot bring down the aircraft? Because imagine if Sully had done that over the Hudson…
image: MSNBC (Fair Use Doctrine)