SMS Mandate For Manufacturers Imminent, FAA Says

Boeing 737 MAX 8
Credit: Boeing

WASHINGTON—The FAA plans to restart its effort to mandate safety management systems (SMS) for manufacturers “shortly,” Administrator Steve Dickson said, calling the move “the biggest thing we can do” to improve how the agency oversees product certification. 

“We are working on that,” Dickson told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during a June 17 hearing. “Right now, we plan to initiate a rulemaking on that shortly.”

Requiring SMS for manufacturers is one of the mandates proposed in legislation introduced by committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) June 16 as part of the Senate’s effort to revamp the FAA certification process. A special committee appointed by the U.S. Transportation Department also cited broader use of SMS as a key to strengthening the certification process. 

“The FAA is analyzing how to extend SMS to other operations,” the agency said in a statement following the hearing. “The agency will provide specifics on that rulemaking in the upcoming Spring 2020 Unified Agenda, which is expected to be published in the Federal Register soon.”

The FAA in 2014 began an SMS rulemaking for manufacturers, but it was put on a “temporary hold,” according to a dedicated SMS page on the agency’s website. The FAA said earlier this year it planned to move forward with the effort to place manufacturers in the same class as other regulated entities, including airlines and repair stations.

Dickson said SMS will help the FAA gain a more complete picture of a product’s development, providing a “holistic” view versus a “transactional” one that may mask ramifications of design changes. Investigations into the Boeing 737 MAX’s certification have cited the agency’s lack of understanding around the model’s flight-control system as a key shortcoming that helped set the stage for two fatal accidents that killed a total of 346 people and led to the MAX’s grounding. 

Dickson reiterated his view that the FAA should have had more extensive and complete details about the MAX’s flight-control software system, including changes made during the aircraft’s development.

“There was incomplete and fragmented information, no doubt,” the FAA administrator said in response to a query from Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about whether Boeing “lied” to the FAA during the MAX certification process. “The full implications of the flight-control systems were not understood, and mistakes were made. The information was not provided in the way it was needed to be provided. That alone degrades the trust.”

The proposed law also would require the FAA to create “best practices” that eliminate instances of “undue pressure” from management on both Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) members and FAA front-line employees. The administrator said SMS will help this issue as well.

“The only way to address that culture issue is by increasing the ability of front-line folks—both at the agency and manufacturers—to bring issues forward in real time,” Dickson said. “It puts safety responsibility where it belongs—at the highest levels.”

He told lawmakers he supports much of the proposed legislation, including its emphasis on expanding FAA’s human-factors expertise, and integrating the discipline into the certification process both earlier and more thoroughly. Dickson also said the FAA is tightening oversight of its ODA program. 

The FAA chief stopped short of agreeing that the FAA should approve ODA members employed by companies—something being sought in the legislation.

Dickson was pressed by several senators on what Wicker called a “record of delay and unresponsiveness” by the FAA to committee requests for documents and interviews related to its review of the MAX certification. “It is hard not to characterize our relationship ... as being adversarial during this process,” Wicker said.

Dickson said the agency will “redouble” efforts to answer lawmakers’ queries.

“I believe it is inaccurate to portray the agency as unresponsive. We have a number of investigations underway that we’re already supporting,” he said. “I hear your frustration, and that’s not okay with me. That’s not where we want to be.”

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.