WASHINGTON — Last week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) released its third review concerning the FAA's certification of Boeing's 737 MAX aircraft and the agency's safety oversight, following two high-profile accidents that led to the global grounding of the fleet. 

Although the process of returning the MAX series to service has been completed and the FAA has a commendable safety record, the DOT found that there are "opportunities to enhance the agency's risk assessments and certification processes."

Areas identified for improvement by the DOT include updating the FAA's underlying order and related guidance for post-event risk assessment processes, which have remained unchanged for over a decade. The department also noted that the FAA "lacks quantifiable human factors data, such as pilot reactions to non-normal situations." Furthermore, the DOT's review summary revealed that not all FAA engineers follow or receive the same guidance or training, which may prevent the agency from "consistently following the most effective risk assessment processes following a safety event."

Some news reports suggest that the DOT review indicates that certain FAA engineers advocated for grounding the MAX fleet earlier, but agency management overruled them. The review stated that, according to FAA officials, they did not immediately ground the MAX after the Ethiopian Airlines accident, as they needed more detailed data to make an informed decision. 

The review of emails between March 10 and March 13, 2019, supports this claim. The FAA received preliminary flight data on March 11 and started evaluating it but faced challenges in interpreting the initial raw data, which lacked enough specifics for comparison with the more detailed information from the previous Lion Air accident. Additionally, FAA officials were receiving information about the airplane's configuration at the time of the accident, suggesting that the accident might not be related to MCAS.

The report summary concluded that while the FAA is incorporating many lessons learned from the MAX recertification efforts for future projects, there are still improvements and procedures being codified by the agency. The DOT made seven recommendations to enhance FAA's risk assessment and corrective action processes. The FAA concurred with all recommendations and provided appropriate actions and planned completion dates.