Employees from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have reported a “strong” sense of external pressure from the national aviation industry, suggesting that the federal agency fails to prioritise public air safety.
The information was gathered in an independent ‘safety culture’ survey, which encouraged the participation of over 7,000 members of staff within the FAA in late 2019 and early 2020.
The report was recently handed to members of the US Congress, as investigations continue into the failed policies that resulted in two fatal 737 MAX plane crashes within five months of one another, killing a combined total of 346 people.
The survey highlighted a range of cultural and safety policies of great concern, particular in light of the 737 MAX tragedies, including “strong” external pressure from industry players, namely Chicago-based planemaker Boeing Co.
“[Employees] shared that there is an unwritten code to be more ‘liberal-minded’ (versus conservative) when assessing safety risks, and there is pressure to find win-win solutions that benefit industry,” the survey found.
“Many reported that industry will escalate issues to senior leadership and/or Congress if FAA employees are perceived as ‘getting in their way’, which directly leads to decisions that are friendlier to industry (i.e. to help meet timelines and manage costs of industry applicants and operators),” the survey added.
Further, nearly half of survey respondents disagreed that the FAA makes data-driven decisions on safety regardless of external pressure.
Employees at the FAA also highlighted that “no one at FAA has taken responsibility or been held accountable for” the 737 MAX incidents, and there has been no acknowledgement to date of the “needed changes to FAA safety-related policies and processes”.
The report also found that employees within the aviation safety sector believe senior leaders “are overly concerned with achieving the business-oriented outcomes of industry stakeholders and are not held accountable for safety-related decisions”.
One employee even mentioned in his response that the general message within the company is: “Don’t rock the boat with Boeing.”
In a letter sent to Congress on Friday, FAA administrator Steve Dickson said, “It is completely unacceptable that there are employees who lack confidence that their safety concerns are taken seriously.”
Dickson said the agency would move to create a Voluntary Safety Reporting Program, consisting of a confidential “non-punitive environment that encourages open reporting of aviation safety issues and concerns”.
This is not the first time that concerns of Boeing placing serious and undue pressure on managers within the FAA over safety protocols have been flagged.
In December, US representative and chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio, reported that an FAA whistleblower had come forward and said: “Boeing applied undue pressure on FAA managers to overrule those managers’ own safety engineers and experts on safety-critical matters.”
Commenting on the recent report, DeFazio called it “a disturbing pattern of senior officials at a federal agency rolling over for industry”.
In June, the Transportation Department’s inspector general said Boeing failed to submit certification documents to the FAA detailing changes to a key flight control system tied to both crashes.
Criminal investigations continue into the certification of the 737 MAX.