Key Points:

  • The FAA has implemented a new policy categorizing key flight control design changes as "major," in response to the Boeing 737 MAX incidents.

  • This move follows Congress's 2020 legislation mandating greater transparency from manufacturers regarding systems that operate without direct pilot input.

  • The new guidance aims to improve aircraft certification safety, with ongoing deliberations on certifying additional Boeing MAX variants.

FAA's Tightened Certification Procedures

WASHINGTON D.C. — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a significant policy shift on Tuesday, classifying crucial flight control design alterations as "major." This change directly addresses issues highlighted by the tragic Boeing 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019. In response to these incidents, Congress enacted comprehensive reforms in 2020 to modify how new aircraft are certified. This includes a requirement for manufacturers to fully disclose safety-critical information to the FAA, particularly concerning systems that manipulate flight controls autonomously.

The FAA's latest directive, aimed at strengthening aircraft certification safety, also includes additional guidance for airplane manufacturers on identifying crucial safety information. This move stems from Boeing's failure to adequately inform the FAA about the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a critical safety system implicated in both fatal accidents.

Industry Response and Future Certification Plans

Boeing, responding to the FAA's announcement, expressed its commitment to transparent collaboration with the FAA to meet all certification requirements. Airbus, another major aircraft manufacturer, has not immediately responded to these developments.

A U.S. House of Representatives investigation revealed that Boeing did not categorize MCAS as a safety-critical system, which would have subjected it to more rigorous FAA scrutiny during the certification process. The report also criticized the FAA for insufficient oversight of Boeing and the 737 MAX certification. The aftermath of the crashes, which led to a 20-month grounding of Boeing's best-selling aircraft, has cost the company over $20 billion in various expenses.

The FAA is currently evaluating the certification of two more models in the MAX series - the smaller MAX 7 and the larger MAX 10. As part of its ongoing efforts, the FAA announced in July its intention to establish milestones during the certification process to assess whether any design changes in airplane systems should be considered novel or unusual, necessitating extra attention.

In a related move last year, the FAA granted Boeing a shorter extension than requested for its regulatory compliance program, emphasizing the need for the company to implement "required improvements." This decision reflects the agency's commitment to ensuring higher safety standards in aircraft certification, following the lessons learned from the Boeing 737 MAX tragedies.