Two Aviation Experts provide wise advice on the B737 MAX8 process

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OPINION

Boeing 737 Max: Don’t rush into criminal case and don’t make safety a political football

Technical matters far from resolved

Standards for grounding and reauthorizing flight based on software NOVEL issue

 International Aviation has established policies for not criminalizing accidents

Christopher Hart and Jim Burnley, Opinion contributors

Published 7:00 a.m. ET March 28, 2019 | Updated 2:30 p.m. ET March 28, 2019

Safety regulators should make careful decisions on when to ground planes, when to put them back in the air, and when to start criminal investigations.

Nobody wants an airplane to crash. Importantly, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the commercial aviation industry have worked diligently to prevent this from happening. Since February 2009, about 8 billion passengers have been carried in U.S. commercial aviation without a single crash fatality — an exemplary safety record.

As a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a former secretary of Transportation, respectively, we believe that aviation safety regulators must be cautious to avoid unintended consequences. We are concerned about the potential impact of activities since the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10 in two respects — the process for grounding the 737 Max in some other countries and commencing a criminal investigation in the United States.

We commend the leadership of the FAA, supported by the secretary of Transportation, for making the difficult decision to ground the 737 Max based on the initial data from the second crash, as well as data from the October crash. Given the great impact of this decision, it should always be made based on data, not external pressure.

 

 

 

 

 

A Boeing 737 MAX 8 (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)

The FAA has grounded airliners only three times in 40 years. The first two were the result of mechanical malfunctions that disabled the airplane so seriously, the risk of a catastrophe was too high. Those groundings resulted from the engine separating from the wing on a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 shortly after takeoff in 1979, and the lithium-ion battery fires in the Boeing 787 in 2013.

This most recent grounding, on the other hand, appears to have resulted from complex automation that pilots should be trained to respond to. Yet in two crashes several months apart, the pilots apparently did not know how to respond. Thus, it might have been a problem of an undesirable interaction between the airplane and the pilots.

Automation will never be perfect

Automation done right has a long history of improving safety, efficiency and reliability in aviation. While the aviation industry has developed robust processes over the years to help ensure that automation is done right, it will never be perfect.

When the automation is not perfect, what is the trigger for grounding? The trigger is clear when an engine separates from the wing or batteries burn, but not so clear when pilot/airplane interaction goes awry. Should the grounding occur after only one event? Or should the trigger be “X” undesirable events in “Y” months? Would a triggering event have to be a crash, or would a near-catastrophe suffice? The FAA deserves credit for gathering enough evidence to identify a possible trend rather than relying only upon a single event.

Another difficult decision awaits our aviation safety regulators: What is the trigger for ending the grounding?

While neither airplane nor training improvements will ever be perfect, the challenge will be deciding how much improvement will be enough to end the grounding. The FAA remains the premier aviation safety agency in the world; other countries should continue to follow its lead on these issues, as they have done for decades.

Don’t rush into criminal proceedings

 

When a disaster occurs, a common response is to try to send somebody to jail. The primary objective of most criminal laws is to punish people for trying to hurt someone or doing wrong.

The overwhelming majority of people involved in commercial aviation, however, are generally trying to do the right thing. For that reason, the NTSB and the FBI have agreed for years that airline accidents will be presumed initially not to be criminal.

Premature criminal investigations can undermine safety. The secretary of Transportation has taken the appropriate step to ask the inspector general to review the regulatory history of the 737 Max. Depending on whether signs of possible criminal misconduct are identified, the NTSB will turn the investigation over the FBI, as has been the practice for years.

But criminal proceedings, and the prospect of going to jail, make people reluctant to cooperate in such a review and chill the flow of information crucial for preventing future crashes.

We will all be safer in the long run if a civil investigation is conducted first and we can learn all that we can from the review. If evidence of possible criminal misconduct is discovered, then law enforcement can be called in.

Finally, Congress must resist the temptation to turn aviation safety into a political football. It has a duty to conduct oversight, but it should be sensitive to the adverse impact on safety that could result from attacks on the integrity and good faith of those tasked with keeping our skies safe.

Christopher Hart was the immediate past chairman of the NTSB in the Obama administration and was an assistant administrator and deputy assistant administrator at the FAA for 14 years. Jim Burnley served as secretary, deputy secretary and general counsel of the Department of Transportation in the Reagan administration and now represents a variety of transportation clients, including American Airline

 



 

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1 Comment on "Two Aviation Experts provide wise advice on the B737 MAX8 process"

  1. JE Murdock III | April 24, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Reply

    Swiss ATC Convictions Draw Calls for Reg Changes
    by Kerry Lynch
    – April 24, 2019, 10:02 AM

    International air traffic controllers representatives are decrying recent convictions of air traffic controllers in Switzerland for operational incidents that caused neither damage nor injury, saying such legal actions will not improve safety. The representatives further urged Swiss leaders to adopt international standards surrounding just culture.
    On March 28, the Bülach District Court found a Skyguide Swiss air traffic controller guilty of negligent disruption of public transport. The conviction involved an August 22 incident at Zurich Airport in which a Darwin Airline aircraft took off while a private plane engaged in flight training approached.
    That conviction followed convictions in April and December 2018. In those cases air traffic controllers were convicted by the Federal Penal Court and by the Cantonal Court of Zurich, respectively, for operational incidents that, similar to the August 22 incident, did not result in either personal property or injury damage.
    Saying it “regrets” the latest conviction, Skyguide stressed that it stands behind the controller in question. The air navigation services provider further underscored the importance of a just culture, which it said “is designed to ensure that mistakes that are neither intentional nor grossly negligent are not subject to disciplinary sanctions.” This is important, Skyguide added, because it enables organizations to learn from mistakes and takes measures to avoid future errors. “This leads to greater safety in Swiss airspace for all users,” it said and noted the controller’s employment “is not called into question by the conviction.”
    The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) and the European Cockpit Association (ECA) earlier had issued a statement expressing extreme disappointment about air traffic controller convictions. These associations had also stressed the importance of just culture, saying it encourages pilots and controllers to report issues relevant to safety without fear of punishment. “This makes the aviation system safer. Despite drastic increases in traffic, safety levels have continued to improve to the level the flying public enjoys today,” IFATCA and ECA said.

    Concerning to the organizations, they added, “Switzerland remains one of the few states that has chosen to deviate from international standards and recommendations—including those in the Annexes to the Convention on International Civil Aviation—when it comes to using safety reports to trigger court case.”
    Noting Switzerland is beholden to a 1942 penal code that binds the court system in these cases, IFATCA and ECA further urged a review of the legal system to better align with the International Civil Aviation Organization.
    “Lengthy and costly court cases do not improve aviation safety, nor do they contribute to the robustness of complex systems,” the organizations said. “They create a climate of fear among aviation professionals and result in a reluctance to submit reports. The opportunity to learn from these events is therefore severely compromised.”
    In the U.S., the National Air Traffic Controllers Association echoed those sentiments, joining the call for Switzerland to align with international standards that incorporate just culture principles.
    “The implementation of a safety culture that continually strives to improve safety within the air traffic control system and the larger aviation industry, with collaborative safety programs, results in a safer system,” NATCA said, adding the results of the programs have been demonstrated “thousands of times” over the past decade in the U.S. through the FAA’s and NATCA’s voluntary, non-punitive reporting program.
    That program, Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), has become the largest voluntary reporting program of its kind, NATCA added, noting more than 165,000 reports have filed since it was implemented nationwide in 2010. The organizations further collaborate on safety programs involving government and industry stakeholders to share critical safety information and identify trends.
    “A punitive culture leads to withholding of information that, if disclosed, could help make the system safer. It only takes one incident or accident to occur because of a safety issue that was not previously raised or discussed for there to be a tragedy,” NATCA said. “Our hope for Switzerland and the other nations that deviate from these principles and international standards is that they can learn from the positive examples of a safety culture to improve their own systems.”
    ATC

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