When I was representing Kansas in the House of Representatives I led an effort to focus on what I called, “the safety agenda.” This was an effort to have government regulators protect the public and consumers from things they cannot otherwise protect themselves from – like the safety of their bank accounts, air and water pollution, and the critical oversight of commercial aviation.
With the deadly crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX last year, it is evident that the FAA is not living up to their side of the safety agenda. Americans expect government regulators to be independent, thorough and not in the hip pocket of the industries they are regulating. Otherwise, the public will lose trust and confidence, the system fails, and millions of air travelers are put at risk every day.
In October 2018, Indonesian carrier Lion Air lost a Boeing 737 MAX. That plane crashed into the Java Sea killing nearly 200 people. Just a few months later Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, also a 737 MAX, crashed killing 157 people. Both of these incidents have been attributed to software called MCAS that was designed to help avoid “stalls” or times when airplanes can’t maintain the lift necessary to stay aloft. Both of these incidents could have been prevented by a functional regulatory process at the Federal Aviation Administration. But thanks in part to lax oversight, insufficient funding, and apparently close relationships between regulators and the businesses they oversee, these 350 lives were needlessly lost.
There are several reasons why the regulatory process has broken down here.
First, the FAA does not have the funding to hire the experienced engineering staff required to thoroughly accomplish all of their necessary analysis in order to certify that new airplanes or new technologies in airplanes are safe for passengers.
Second, the relationship between the FAA and Boeing in particular is very close – with staff jumping from one organization to the other with some regularity.
Finally, as a result of both of the previous reasons and a lobbying effort dating from 2005, the FAA has handed responsibility for oversight of new products to the very company creating the product in the first place: Boeing.
For decades, Americans have grown increasingly skeptical of the value and utility of their own government. And for just as long, lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have waged an all-out assault on government regulations. As a moderate Democrat, I agree with many of my friends on the other side of the aisle that the government shouldn’t be creating red tape that prevents the market from working well. You shouldn’t need a costly license to shampoo someone’s head.
But there is a huge difference between regulations and regulators.
Regulators are the cops on the beat that lets businesses create products and make money while consumers’ safety expectations are satisfied. A well-funded and independent regulatory agency is critical in nearly every major aspect of the marketplace, especially in aviation!
It’s hard to create and maintain good regulatory agencies. For the FAA, regulators need to have a very thorough and deep understanding about the complexities of each part of the plane from the hardware design to the software and computing systems. In order to grasp difficult interactions between things like airspeed and software signals one must be qualified and experienced. But such engineers can command better salaries on the open market, and the FAA can’t compete. So we end up with not enough qualified engineers to do the job that the government and the American people have given to the FAA. The MCAS system that caused the accidents was the result of a part of the system that was not even known to the FAA regulators tasked with oversight over the program! The people who were responsible for this system didn’t even understand what they were looking at, because they weren’t qualified to do the job.
The close relationship between the FAA regulators and Boeing worsened this particular situation. Even after the Lion Air accident, the FAA met with the Boeing executives, realized that they hadn’t properly vetted the MCAS system, but still didn’t ground planes. The inevitable result was another accident, and more casualties.
When it comes to commercial aviation, the public trust requires an independent, effective regulatory system where the federal agency does its job properly. The FAA and all regulators need to keep their independence and their distance between themselves and airplane manufacturers.
A deeper problem is the indifference to regulatory agencies among the American public. There is a huge difference between cutting red tape and damaging the independent regulators we need to keep us safe. Whether it’s the Securities and Exchange Commission and Wall Street, the Federal Communications Commission and telecommunications companies, the Federal Aviation Administration and airlines, or any other regulator, the American public on a bipartisan level needs to realize that having independent and well-funded regulatory agencies is critical to their safety.
Hopefully these high profile crashes and the exposure of this lax regulatory structure can create an opening for some bipartisanship over the need to keep Americans who fly the skies safe and sound.