Why an independent panel must investigate Boeing crashes

The crashes of two Boeing 737 Max8 jets, with the deaths of 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia, and the subsequent grounding of the aircraft worldwide is a watershed moment for the U.S. civil aviation industry, one risks a global crisis of distrust. The crashes have tarnished Boeing’s reputation and damaged the image and respect of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the regulator that certified the aircraft’s airworthiness.

This could be the first time in history that the actions (or inaction) of a U.S. company and government regulatory agency have directly affected people all over the world, with an unacceptable level of risks. Questions concerning the design, testing, safety analysis and certification process of the aircraft deserve the empanelment of an independent board of inquiry.

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The investigation of technical and regulatory failures is beyond the scope and resources of the justly respected National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). At least three investigations have been launched: the Department of Transportation (DOT)’s Office of Inspector General has opened an inquiry into the FAA’s certification process; DOT Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoTransportation Secretary Chao sells stock in Vulcan after pledge to divest by 2018 Transportation Secretary Chao sells stock in Vulcan after pledge to divest by 2018 McConnell brushes off question about special treatment from Chao MORE has created an “expert special committee” to review certification procedures; and the Justice Department’s criminal division is looking into the Max jets.  Moreover, Congress plans several hearings, and the Senate held its first one on March 27.

However, as experience has shown, government ministries, regulatory agencies, parliamentary and judiciary committees are not effective accident investigation bodies. Most of these investigations are constrained by turf issues or bureaucratic boundaries; they are inwardly focused, not broad enough and, most importantly, not entirely independent. The magnitude of recent revelations concerning the design, safety analysis and certification process of this aircraft requires the empanelment of an independent national board of inquiry.

Such an inquiry or investigation constitutes the only sound action to ensure that 346 souls did not die in vain, to address the serious challenges that U.S. civil aviation industry faces, and to provide credible solutions to restore the damaged reputations of Boeing and the FAA.

There are several noteworthy precedences for the empowerment of such boards of inquiry. The President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979, produced a monumental report (the Kemeny Report), and two independent commissions investigated and published reports on the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents in 1986 and 2003, respectively.

Additionally, two national panels investigated the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in April 2010, which killed 11 and seriously injured 16, and the oil flow that continued for nearly three months into the Gulf of Mexico: the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, and the Committee on the Analysis of Causes of the Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Fire and Oil Spill to Identify Measures to Prevent Similar Accidents in the Future, established by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC).  

The Trump administration (DOT) and Congress should agree to immediately establish an independent investigatory commission. This panel should be chaired by a prominent statesman or scholar, and its members selected based on their expertise from related disciplines in academe, aviation and other safety-sensitive industries, professional societies, trade unions, etc. If possible, it should be given subpoena power and charged to conduct a comprehensive, systematic, interdisciplinary investigation that would produce a technically-sound report.

The National Academies (of sciences, engineering and medicine), via the National Research Council (NRC) or its Board of Human-Systems Integration (BOHSI), could be a readily available entity with the legitimacy and experience to undertake such an independent investigation, as it did in the Deepwater Horizon accident. The NRC’s solid reputation, meticulous screening of its committee members, and rigorous peer review of reports are invaluable assets in this context.

Such an investigation could address the serious challenge posed by the advancement of new safety-critical technologies and increasing system complexity, which outpace the capabilities of regulatory agencies. This widening gap could have adverse consequences and serious safety implications for users and the general public. Regulating these technologies — such as cockpit automation, autonomous cars and AI-infused equipment — requires a new mindset and proactive strategy. Oversight cannot happen on a piecemeal basis by a patchwork of siloed federal agencies.

Albert Einstein once said, “Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance.”   While we should refrain from jumping to conclusions and condemning entities or individuals with regard to these accidents, we nevertheless can safely postulate that Einstein was referring to a technically sound, unbiased and independent investigation.

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, has been teaching a core course on human factors in aviation safety at the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program since 1989 and was its director (1992-1999). Presently, he is a research fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.