Ky: FAA And EASA Are Closer After Difficult Discussions

Boeing 777X

EASA, the FAA and Boeing have agreed on a road map to certify the 777X.

Credit: Mark Wagner/Aviation-Images

Patrick Ky has been executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency since 2013. During his tenure, EASA has risen to become a regulator of global relevance, taking a more independent stance during the Boeing 737 MAX crisis and in certifying the 777X. Ky spoke with Aviation Week’s Jens Flottau and Sean Broderick about the agency’s changing role and its upcoming challenges. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

Patrick Ky
Patrick Ky

AW&ST: Looking back at your 10 years at the agency, what were the most significant changes at EASA?

We were faced with five major tragedies: [the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Germanwings crash, the Boeing 737 MAX crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war]. After each of those crises, EASA had to adapt itself to the new reality to be flexible enough to change our internal policies, our organization, our way to deal with the circumstances.

We added value in creating safety during the COVID crisis. We worked a lot on national health and safety protocols. Those things did not exist in our mandate before. We had to work with our doctors and our safety experts. From a governance perspective, when I arrived at EASA, there was a lot of tension with the national authorities. Ten years later . . . we have a very strong partnership between EASA and the member states of the European Union, which is good for safety.

How does this show? Ten years ago, when we were doing an inspection in a member state, we were seen as the bad guys—the auditors coming to say bad things about what they were doing. Nowadays, the states welcome our visits because they see it as an opportunity to present some of their ideas, to exchange practices. It’s a real win-win type of relationship, which I think is very good for the entire system.

The global airline industry has recovered very quickly, but there have been concerns as to whether that has negative implications for safety. How do you feel industry has done? I think the industry has done very well. We were a bit worried two years ago when we started to fly again. That’s where we did a lot of work on informing airlines, national authorities, airports, air traffic control service providers and maintenance operators: Be careful, you have not flown for a couple of months. You have lost some of the automatism that you had. There are new patterns in the [system]. There are fewer aircraft in the air, which means that the normal trajectories that you’re used to flying are no longer there. There were very few incidents. There were no accidents.

And how do you view the current situation? The situation we are in now—the workforce crisis—you can no longer say is part of the recovery; it’s something that is of more substance for aviation. We had a crisis last summer at airports in Europe because of shortages of resources. I think all operators were very clear about the fact that safety needs to be maintained at the highest level. So we never took any risks on safety, [and] the result of the shortage of human resources was delays. If we, together with our industry stakeholders, see that there is a risk of a shortage of resources, then we need to anticipate it and start now to improve the resources that will be available for next year. That’s something we’re working on, and it’s not easy.

A series of events has put the U.S. industry on notice that safety risks may be creeping into the system. Is EASA concerned? [With] any safety issues around the world, we pay attention, but we do not think this situation is relevant to us. We trust the FAA to do the right thing to solve the issues, if there are any. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. Incidents happen from time to time. The FAA has been, and still is, a world leader in terms of safety. If there is anything that is seen in the U.S. that is relevant for the worldwide aviation system, I’m certain the FAA will communicate it.

Where are you in certifying the 777X? We had a lot of discussions with the FAA and Boeing. Some were more difficult than others, but what matters is that we are agreeing on a common way forward. We identified a certain number of issues on which we had a different interpretation of the rules, and now on each of those issues we have a solution. Sometimes it can be a change in the design. Other times it can be the in-service safety records of similar types of components or architecture, which [indicates] this is not a safety-critical issue.

In other cases, we do not change the architecture. We use other methodologies such as a software development assurance to guarantee that the desired safety level will be the same. Certification projects are certification projects. Up until the end, there can be changes we’re not expecting. But so far, I think we have a common view with Boeing and the FAA on what needs to be done in order to reach the safety level that we all want.

All of that work is done under a U.S.-EU bilateral agreement that spells out roles for the certifying and validating authorities. Considering what regulators went through to recertify the 737 MAX and how certification in general is changing with increased scrutiny, are the bilaterals still sufficient to get these projects done? The bilaterals as they are give us a very good framework. And of course, after the 737 MAX [crisis], there were lessons learned on the internal processes, items to which we need to pay more attention, such as the change product rule. What we saw was that the bilaterals are worded in sufficiently high-level terms that we can use them on both sides to [ensure] that the level of safety is what we want to achieve. Certification is a matter of people. It’s a matter of expertise. We were very clear with Boeing and the FAA that we needed to define measures, solutions [and] changes with which our technical experts would be comfortable.

Are there areas where there is divergence in terms of philosophy between EASA and the FAA, for example when it comes to automation? “Divergence” is not the right term. You know that I studied in the U.S. The way science is taught in the U.S. is completely different from the way it is taught in Europe. In Europe, it is very conceptual and theoretical; in the U.S., it is very hands-on. So it is not a surprise that the approach to certification is different in the U.S. and Europe. I think it is better this way, to be frank. If we can achieve the same results with two different approaches, our systems are even more robust.

I think we should maintain those different approaches because that guarantees a high level of safety. Safety experts are sometimes stubborn or arrogant. I would be lying to you if I said we don’t sometimes have discussions [in which] the Europeans claim that [the U.S.] does not know how to do it or the other way around. But I think it is good. That is also how we make progress.

To what extent are you working on understanding the implications of artificial intelligence? We are working on it, and we are quite advanced on this. We have a road map for the certification of AI systems. Again, I’m pretty sure the FAA approach will be different from ours, and that is where we learn from each other. Eventually, we have to converge even though we come from different directions, because we have to certify a product together. And on the 777X, we had topics like human factors [where] we were seeing things from an angle that was a bit different from that of the FAA. We met at the end, finally, and that is what matters.

Would you say the FAA and EASA have moved closer together again? Yes. It is in difficult discussions that you build the relationship. Having different points of view forces people to sit down together and try to explain their points in several ways. It has inevitably created tensions at some stage, of course, but because we have a common solution, there is a sense [that] we have been working together on this. We are happy we worked as a team. In the coming months, I am sure there will be tensions again, [and] there will be disagreements, but that is what it is about. It is part of the game.

EASA is working on another big certification project, the Airbus A321XLR. Where are you in the process? We spent a lot of time on this and had a very controversial discussion with Airbus about it, in particular on the flammability of the rear center tank (RCT), as you can imagine. We wanted to make sure that the FAA would be fully on board with us in the discussion. We are in that case, of course, the primary certification authority, and the FAA is the validating authority. But it would not make sense for us to propose a new design that Airbus is implementing, and then the FAA comes three months later with different requirements.

We were very keen to involve the FAA in all the discussions we were having with Airbus. We found a good way to work together with the FAA and Airbus. We are converging on a common understanding of a suitable design of the RCT in terms of safety and flammability and how we can move forward on the certification of the XLR.

Advanced air mobility (AAM) is an emerging sector in the industry. What are your main concerns from a regulatory perspective? First, we have a disagreement with the FAA on the level of safety. But I can understand as well that the operational context is different. In the U.S., there is much more use of general aviation, which we don’t have in Europe. Since AAM is going to take place predominantly around densely populated areas, the target level of safety should be the same as for commercial aviation. I think there are difficulties in the business case, which are not my problem, but they also drive some design requirements. If you have an air taxi with four seats, whether you have a pilot or not makes a huge difference from a business perspective. It also has an impact on certification.

And the new aircraft have to be integrated into the airspace? Yes, and that has to happen in a safe manner. It is the type of airspace where you have helicopters, firefighters, emergency services. We need to work on this. It is certainly a challenge. The third challenge is electrical power. Are we sufficiently reassured that we have enough power to perform safe operations in all types of environments, [with] heat, low temperatures, [instrument flight rules] conditions, rain, icing? Can the batteries maintain the safety levels in all kinds of conditions? The fourth will be the training of pilots. Will there be helicopter or airline pilots? Do we have enough to serve the needs of this new market? I don’t think so, at the moment, but if we have to ramp up, can we have enough training? It is more of an issue with the microsystem rather than the airplane itself.

Would you be OK having different safety standards in the U.S. and Europe? It is of course better if it is harmonized, for the industry in particular. But again, if there is a different safety level in the U.S. that corresponds to the type of operation, I have nothing to say, of course. In Europe, the OEMs are certain that they need the highest possible level of safety.

Can EASA itself cope with regulating another field of aviation, from a workload perspective? We don’t have that many projects [that have started the certification process]; you can count them on a single hand. So [that] amount we can manage for the time being. If we get hundreds of applications, that is another story. It is very innovative technology, so we have to understand the risks and train our people, but we can deal with it. We have created a transversal team dealing with AAM because there are issues like flight operations, licensing and airports. People are not necessarily working full-time on these topics. When we get more applications for vehicles or vertiports, we may need to recruit more staff or build partnerships with national authorities so we have a sufficient level of expertise.

EASA has a very broad mandate now. What are some things that are not getting enough attention? One is a regulation that is being discussed with member states on air traffic control (ATC). For ATC in Europe, each country has a different system, which is very customized. We estimate that the level of commonality is around 30%. It is a product that is fitting the local needs, but it is creating problems for evolution because every single solution is customized. It is creating issues of interoperability because the level of customization is so high that a controller trained on one system is not necessarily operational on another system.

When you compare it with what is happening with the Airbuses, Boeings and Embraers of the world, there was a very high level of customization in the past, but nowadays it takes maybe a couple of weeks for a pilot of a Ryanair 737 to fly on a Southwest 737. The degree of commonality is huge. The idea, which will hopefully be approved by the member states before the summer, is to move to a world of current products where we would like to have 70-80% of the products [be] common and 20% customized. In the field of air traffic management, this is a revolution, believe me.

Connectivity also is gaining in importance fast. We have worked with the FAA, Boeing and Airbus on that. We published a common report at the end of last year. Today, it is still extremely difficult to exchange digital messages between the cockpit and the ground. There are a lot of different technologies, different standards. When you look at the needs of the aircraft for the next 20 years, there are a lot of needs to digitally connect the aircraft to the ground for operational purposes. More information back and forth, weather, satellite images.

For ATC, the controller is still talking to the pilot using VHF radio, which is a technology dating back to the 1940s. For maintenance, we could foresee that the level of interaction between the ground and the aircraft for AAM—but also for the new generation of Airbus and Boeing aircraft—would require more digital links. We don’t have a unique technical solution. We propose that satellite communications be used for all communications between the ground and the cockpit, but that means we would need to ensure that we have a very high level of cybersecurity protection.

How much time do you dedicate to emerging new propulsion technologies such as hydrogen-powered aircraft? We have not yet received formal applications for the certification of hydrogen-fueled commercial aircraft. We have a team looking at hydrogen-fueled aircraft in all the dimensions, including the supply at airports—would we need to certify the safety of the supply chain? We have started to work on potential constraints on storage of hydrogen onboard aircraft. I don’t have a deadline. We are learning and investing in our expertise on this, understanding the risks.

Your term at EASA ends this summer. What are you going to do from August onward? I don’t know. That is an honest answer. I spent my entire career in aviation. I would be lying to you if I said that I don’t want to work in aviation anymore. It is quite open for the time being. I have had some discussions with a few organizations. As soon as I have signed my contracts, you will be the first to know.

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.

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.