Lawmakers question FAA inspections

Lawmakers sparred Wednesday over the Federal Aviation Administration's delegation of airplane safety inspections to aircraft manufacturers.

The battle follows questions earlier this year about the FAA's certification of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The FAA came under fire for that decision after the plane was grounded in the beginning of the year following a series of battery failures.

The agency was criticized for allowing Boeing to conduct parts of the inspections themselves, in a process known as self-certification.

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Democrats on the House Aviation subcommittee argued Wednesday that delegating certification tests was the only way the agency could keep up with the high volume of airplanes that have to be inspected.

"The FAA’s delegation authority is nothing new – it has been a key component for decades," Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said. "Because FAA simply does not have the personnel to oversee every aspect of aviation certification, the law allows FAA to delegate certain functions to qualified individuals and companies."

Larsen added that the FAA would not have to delegate much of its airplane inspection process if Congress provided more funding for the agency

"To ensure that aviation manufacturing continues to play such a critical role in the nation’s economy, Congress must provide adequate resources for FAA certification services," Larsen said. "Additionally, Congress should encourage FAA to improve the streamlining process, while maintaining the highest level of safety."

Under the self-certification process, airplane safety tests are supposed to be conducted to meet standards that are set by the FAA. The results are then supposed to be double-checked by the FAA before an airplane is ruled to be safe to fly.

However, airplane safety advocates called to testify Wednesday questioned where the FAA was spreading itself too thin with the self-certification tests.

"How much oversight can we have for the designees if we don't have enough inspectors?" said Professional Aviation Safety Specialists President Mike Perrone.

FAA officials testified that delegating inspections like it did during the initial Dreamliner certification process allowed the agency to tap other companies' areas of expertise.

"No entity is going to have the expertise in every single piece of technology, and industry is continually pushing the boundaries," FAA Aircraft Certification Service Director Dorenda Baker said.

Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on Aviation, said Wednesday he was going to take a wait-and-see approach to measure the impact of changes to the FAA's airplane certification process that were made in the 2012 funding bill that Congress passed for the agency.

"It is the shared goal of everyone in this room to find the right balance between maintaining the highest level of aviation safety while achieving greater efficiencies in FAA’s certification processes," LoBiondo said. 

LoBiondo countered Larsen that Congress did exactly that in the funding bill that was approved for the FAA in 2012.

"The Aviation subcommittee often hears concerns from companies, operators and other certificate holders related to the FAA’s certification processes," LoBiondo said.

"In particular, long wait times, inconsistent regulatory interpretations, and redundant or outdated processes have all been brought to the subcommittee’s attention," LoBiondo continued. "In response, Congress included two important provisions in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to improve the FAA’s certification processes. These provisions require the agency to develop plans to streamline their certification processes, and address regional regulatory inconsistencies — all while maintaining the highest level of safety."

General Aviation Manufacturers Association President Pete Bunce agreed with Larsen's argument that the self-certification were not a problem.

"Designees are nothing new since the FAA was created in [1958]," Bunce said. "Every pilot out there used a designee to get their license."

Bunce said it was more important that the FAA get its certifications right, no matter who was conducting the initial tests.

"If something has the FAA stamp of approval, we don't want any other country to have to come over and inspect [the airplanes] again," he said. "We want them to accept the FAA gold standard."