EASA’s Statement Understates the Sophistication and Proactive Nature of Aircraft Certification

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ARTICLE: Airbus Tackles Flaws in Superjumbo

053013The certification of an aircraft is among the most complex governmental functions performed by civil servants. Under the current regulatory rules (they are changing), the testing relies on a set of standards which have been developed over time. The range of criteria reflects engineering dimensions, which have been shown to correlate with safe performance of the aircraft design in the real world. The civil aviation authorities have good criteria against which to measure the airworthiness of an aircraft.

The regulatory regime reflects that the system is not omniscient, that all flaws cannot be found a priori. That mechanism is called an Airworthiness Directive and it allows the certificating body to require further analysis/remedial actions. This is a time honored process which provides for mid-course corrections. ADs have been used to make corrections as issues have been identified.

Most significantly, the after-the-fact detection systems have dramatically improved the regulators’ knowledge of problems on an early warning basis. The civil servants now get information primarily from the flight data recorders, a capture program called Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA). Now minor aberrations experienced by individual operators of the same aircraft are accumulated to create a trend line which shows the broader implications of an emerging flaw over the fleet of all aircraft flown worldwide. Remedial reactions now can be designed before there is a catastrophic failure.

That is a long introduction to provide context to a lamentable quote. In response to a question about European Aviation Safety Agency’s long review of a structural problem in the A-380, that certification body’s executive director, Patrick Goudou, said:

“It’s impossible to test for everything—it’s simply too complex.”

While the statement is not inaccurate, it is made in defensive terms failing to recognize how the regulatory system is now designed and calibrated to detect problems BEFORE they emerge with dire consequences.

Oddly enough that same data base justifies the EASA decision NOT to require the immediate grounding of the A-380. The number of cycles between the delivery of the wing and the existence of substantial risk that the wing will fail can be calculated with greater precision and certainty because of FOQA.

Certification is complex, Monsieur Goudou, but your quote fails to demonstrate the degree to which the FAA, EASA and other civil aviation agencies monitor the “health” of the aircraft so deemed to be safe. ADs and FOQA have provided the regulators with real time tools to identify and fix undetected or unpredictably appearing problems before they become critical.

Why undersell what is being done in pursuit of excellence in aviation safety?

To the aviation safety cognoscenti, this will have meaning—thanks NTSB Member Chris Hart for being the father of FOQA.

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