News reports about the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the Boeing 737 MAX8, the FAA and Boeing have offered a variety of “expert” opinions on the certification process. In particular, these talking head have thrown the terms “designated airworthiness representative’ (DAR) and “designated engineering representative” (DER) with little care and precision. Based on their alleged insights into these complex safety functions, used by every nation which certificates aircraft, they cast aspersions on the integrity of the FAA’s processes which validated the airworthiness of this aircraft.
Many individuals who actually hold DARs and/or DERs have been offended by the criticisms offered by these media stars who really have little or no direct experience with these important resources which the FAA and other civil aviation authorities use mostly because the governmental organizations do not have individuals knowledgeable enough to judge the airworthiness of the system, part, material, hardware, software, etc.
FAA Delegation – Why We Have It, How It Works
It’s not widely known that the FAA delegation system is approaching its 80th birthday, and the form of delegation that Boeing used to certificate the 737 Max harkens back to 1956, when the first Delegation Option Authorization (DOA) was issued by the FAA. Despite its unfortunate acronym, the basic DOA concept has successfully evolved over time to become the Organization Delegation Authorization (ODA) that we have today.
From the FAA website:
“ODA holders are typically authorized to conduct the types of FAA functions which they would normally seek from the FAA. For example, aircraft manufacturers may be authorized to approve design changes in their products and repair stations may be authorized to approve repair and alteration data.”
“Regular FAA oversight of an ODA is accomplished by a team of FAA engineers and inspectors to ensure the ODA holder functions properly and that any approvals or certificates issued meet FAA safety standards.”
When examining delegation as a matter of practicality, the FAA Aircraft Certification organization is responsible for ALL aircraft design and production approvals in the US and around the world. The AIR discipline has about 1100 employees — 400 are dedicated to administrative and management personnel. So roughly 700 individuals are responsible for ALL design approvals, production & continued airworthiness of everything that flies and of that, maybe 400 are engineers. Well under 100 of those engineers are assigned directly to Boeing.
Now, according to the Boeing website, it has over 45,000 engineers spread throughout the entire company. Such a deep roster of talent, the aerospace company has incredibly deep and specific expertise for new designs and to manage the safety and airworthiness of the nearly 14,000 Boeing airplanes flying today.
This legislation and subsequent additional amendments were Congressional recognition that the FAA cannot be reasonably expected to have detailed oversight of an extremely complex airplane such as the Boeing 737 Max. In addition, Boeing and all other manufacturers of airplanes, helicopters, engines, propellers, balloons, and even windshields and wheels carry with their products the ultimate accountability and liability of their products, right down to every nut, bolt, wire and rivet.
Obviously, all Civil Aviation Authorities have limited internal competence compared to the manufacturers of airframes and powerplants subject to their jurisdiction. Governments cannot afford to pay the salaries of PHDs needed to assess the adequacy of the engineering designs included in a proposed aircraft. To deal with that imbalance, all CAAs qualify and designate these external resources.
Congress, as long ago as 1950, specifically authorized the appointment of designees. One reason given for this clarification was “FAA was clearly in need of private sector expertise to keep pace with the growing aviation industry.”
FAA delegation is a system of direct oversight which, over decades of successful safe aircraft certifications have proved that this certification regime, based on individual and organizational trust, is a regime with high integrity and even higher safety record.
To paraphrase a relevant FAA directive, a designee must have the ability to maintain the highest degree of objectivity, adequate time to perform assigned duties, and adequately represent the FAA. Also, no one MAY force a designee to approve technical data that (s)he hasn’t had enough time to review, or doesn’t find to comply with the applicable regulations. A designee must also report any coercion by an applicant to the FAA. When a designee complains of undue pressure from an employer, the FAA takes it very seriously and will investigate and take appropriate action when needed.
Further, the FAA does not simply delegate and leave the certificate holder to its own devices. They authorize delegation project by project, and they “retain” findings of compliance in areas that are critical, novel and unique, or that the FAA has found to be safety critical. They then audit programs on a regular basis and monitor progress through frequent contact.
There is also an established legal basis that allows the FAA to delegate. In a 1984 lawsuit, “United States vs Varig Airlines” the Supreme Court decided “[u]nder this certification process, the duty to ensure that an aircraft conforms to FAA safety regulations lies with the manufacturer and operator, while the FAA retains responsibility for policing compliance.” The Supreme Court also stated “. . . a planned program of spot-checking by [Civil Aviation Authority employees], should result in obtaining increased knowledge of conformity of the end product. . . .” (Note, the CAA is now the FAA.)
Delegation is necessary, and it has been shown to work from the middle of the last century to this very day. We don’t really know what happened between Boeing and the FAA, only time will tell that tale. The delegation system is highly dependent on the certificate holder’s integrity and openness, as well as careful FAA oversight. If one or both of those two elements fail, that delegation may then fail, but it is a mistake to broad-brush the entire system as a failure. We need delegation because it works, when properly managed.
The FAA exercises delegation because it is an extremely effective and proven way to bridge the gap between regulator and certificate holders without hiring hundreds, if not thousands, of highly trained and well-paid experts whose salaries would be paid by your tax dollars.
Delegation is used by every major CAA, has been reviewed and repeatedly approved by Congress while establishing a reliable track record.
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