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Plane Safety Is A Shared Responsibility, Former FAA Administrator Says


Some other news now. Why did federal regulators allow airlines to fly the Boeing 737 Max? It's a question the Department of Justice reportedly wants answered. Here's what we know. Aviation safety officials have seen similarities between two crashes of 737s, although the investigations continue. These and other incidents raise questions about a flight control system. And Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration had said that system was safe. The Seattle Times reports the FAA accepted a safety analysis concluding that the failure of that system would not be catastrophic. The last permanent administrator of the FAA is Michael Huerta. He stepped down from his five-year term last year, and he is on the line from Utah.

Mr. Huerta, welcome to the program.

MICHAEL HUERTA: Thank you. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is it correct that Boeing rolled out this plane while you were leading the FAA?

HUERTA: Yes, that's correct. The aircraft had received its final certification in 2017 after...

INSKEEP: Was it right to certify it as safe?

HUERTA: Well, it was a five-year process that was - begun - and it is - it's a process that has been followed for many aircraft for many years and derivative aircraft, as they've been developed as new technologies have come into the marketplace. Aviation safety is the ultimate team sport, and it's a shared responsibility between the regulator and the manufacturer. Clearly, there - critics are asking a lot of questions here. And the world aviation community has been justifiably shaken by what's developed over the past weeks.


HUERTA: And that's what the investigators are now focused on, what exactly happened...

INSKEEP: But you have to ask yourself personally - was this the right decision? Effectively, your name is on this.

HUERTA: Well, the decision is made by the professionals in the Aircraft Certification division of the FAA. And yes, I, like everybody else, have questions of - what did the data tell us at the time? What did we know? And what decisions were made? And as we conclude this investigation, I think it will be important for us to all work together to ensure that an accident like this doesn't happen ever again.

INSKEEP: You mention, Mr. Huerta, that this is a long-standing process. The FAA works with the aviation companies, works with any number of different firms to try to figure out the best safety approach. But there are now questions about whether the process was not truly followed in its traditional sense here. And I'll give an example.

It's of course understood that a plane should have massive redundancy - that if one thing goes wrong, that shouldn't crash the plane. The classic example is if it's a multi-engine plane, they design it to fly with only one engine working. And yet, according to The Seattle Times, we discover that if a single sensor were to fail, this flight control system could go out of control. And we now have evidence that could be catastrophic. Was that a correct analysis, do you think?

HUERTA: Well, I'm not privy to the investigation or to the analysis. But that is a fair question and something that the in - crash investigators will certainly look at and something that is an area of focus.

But I think it is also important to recognize that the issues around this accident involve much more than the certification process, the respective roles of the company and the regulator. There are also issues with respect to training. There are issues with respect to the basic design, which you have mentioned, and then questions about how we should look at this model, a brand-new plane versus a derivative model. And all of that, I think, needs to be on the table and needs to be part of the discussion.

INSKEEP: Is there a fair question, also, about the way the FAA interacts with Boeing or other aviation companies? You always depend on them to look after their own safety record. And then you kind of oversee that to an extent. But it's now alleged that that's gone much farther - that Boeing gets more and more responsibility for saying itself that everything is safe, inspecting itself.

HUERTA: Well, you - there are two questions in that question that you've just asked. The first is whether it is a good idea for there to be a collaborative response - or a collaborative relationship between the regulator and the company. The second question is, was it properly applied in this case?

On the first question, I would say, unequivocally, you want to have that collaborative relationship. It wasn't always that way. You know, prior to the mid-1990s, you had almost an adversarial relationship that existed between the regulator and the companies that it oversaw in aviation. And the safety record was not what it is today. Since then - you know, in the last 10 years, you know, you've had U.S. airlines that have carried some 7 billion passengers. That's roughly the equivalent of the world's population and with only a single passenger fatality. And any fatality is unacceptable. But now...

INSKEEP: Yeah, it's an amazing record. I agree. But now we have these new incidents.

HUERTA: But - but that record is the result of the collaborative framework of data-sharing that exists between the companies and the agency. Now, in this case, clearly, there were issues that were - that were not missed - that were missed, that were not identified that have contributed to a problem. And that's what the investigation is all about. And the company and the agency - both have to ask hard questions and come up with answers on - how do we ensure that this doesn't happen again?

INSKEEP: Very briefly - might it be time for the FAA to take a little bit of power back from the companies?

HUERTA: I think that's a fair question. I think it is important for us to consider not only the decisions that were made, but how they were made. And we need to do that in an open and transparent manner involving everyone across the industry. The aviation industry doesn't compete on safety.

INSKEEP: Mr. Huerta, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

HUERTA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Michael Huerta is a former permanent administrator of the FAA. He stepped down in 2018. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.