Opinion: FAA ODA ‘Designees’ Need Training

Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

In their Oct. 19 letter, friends and relatives of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 (ET302) 737 MAX crash victims demanded termination of Boeing’s organization designation authorization (ODA) “because it cannot be trusted to certify the safety of Boeing designs free from undue influence, interference and incompetence.” Investigations into ET302 and a second fatal 737 MAX accident spotlighted numerous failings, including ODA problems.

Designees are embedded non-FAA personnel who referee the U.S. civil aviation industry—legal agency representatives charged with protecting the flying public’s interests. They have been integral for decades.

The 2006 introduction of ODA made a crucial change: Company engineers and specialists who do the work—and make up the ODA units—are not designees. Instead, the responsibility of legally representing the agency now rests with the company, not individuals. Simply put, under ODA, the applicant and designee are one and the same.

ODA unit members receive special training to be de facto FAA representatives. Company executives who oversee the ODA do not. Recent policy assigns a direct FAA point of contact for some ODA unit members, but they are still not designees.

In my 33-plus years as an FAA designee, I was always the filter, regardless of the applicant’s integrity—or lack thereof. The ODA system removed the filter.

Defining “designee” under ODA becomes philosophical. The FAA’s current list of ODA holders includes Boeing, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. Who or what are they? Whatever they are, their culture and conduct are defined by executives more than anyone else—executives who receive no special ODA training.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) at least addresses the issue. When I was the head of independent system monitoring for GE/CFM’s Design Organisation Approval (DOA), a new vice president took over. I spent days training him on certification principles—EASA’s acceptance of him was a condition for DOA renewal.

Company executives don’t need technical training on issues the ODA units handle. Let’s train ODA “designees”—managers within the units and executives who oversee them—to manage effectively, empower ODA unit members and not interfere with our work.

ODA unit members have to be experienced, knowledgeable and competent. To some managers, that makes us good “fixers” of company shortcomings. But the FAA’s own ODA regulations, specifically 14CFR§183.57(c), forbid this. Managers must “ensure that no conflicting non-ODA unit duties or other interference affects the performance of authorized functions by ODA unit members,” it says.

Asking unit members to fix problems, instead of just to identify whether problems exist, disables the system.

When I designed and monitored repairs on Pan Am 747s, major repair coordinators, authorized by FAA regulation, had to be satisfied before aircraft left the hangar.

Fast forward 35 years, to early 2021. My job: verify, as GE Aviation’s ODA deputy administrator and inspection unit member, that GE’s parts, engines, test setups and processes conform to design. But I found myself, the verifier, pressured to become the fixer of GE’s conformity failings—past, present and future.

I refused. And then I quit.

Managers at corporations with ODAs that design and produce new aircraft and engines—type certificate (TC) ODAs—must represent the FAA and the flying public above all else. Far too frequently they don’t. So here we are, bolting on accountability legislation.

My experience tells me Congress’ efforts, while fruitful, are not enough. Left unchecked, these untrained, underqualified managers, acting as designees, will continue to compromise commercial aviation safety.

Stakeholders must become more accountable. Manufacturers should select their best and brightest as ODA unit members and administrators, and they should be empowered to represent the flying public, full stop.

The FAA needs to step up, too. A competent ODA isn’t just a stack of forms. The agency must audit for Part 183 violations, including disempowerment and interference. A recent FAA survey of Boeing ODA unit members found enough to trigger a probe of Boeing’s unit management. Other ODAs have similar issues. My third-party ODA employers are better. Perhaps these smaller companies are less beholden to exuberant “lean” and “shareholder value” mantras. Maybe a heavier reliance on consultants builds a firewall.

For TC ODA designees who prove incorrigible, implement Mike Borfitz’s proposal (AW&ST July 26-Aug. 8, p. 74). Apply the supplemental type certificate world’s third-party ODA concept to the TC-holder world. Preserve ODA procedures but disconnect ODA unit control from persons not shown to be qualified to fulfill their responsibilities as FAA designees.

Richard Kucera is an FAA designated engineering representative, designated airworthiness representative, member of multiple organization designation authorization units, EASA compliance verification engineer and a former ODA administrator.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.


The proposed modifications are a self evident requirement.
It always possible that there could be one hesitant fox in the chicken coop.
Or, as is often said: everyone is honest until ‘just before.’
What happens at Boeing is not a standard for the industry when it comes to ODAs. Granted that there are some ODAs that could use some better training and members, but that is the minimum, not the norm.
Mr. Kucera’s opinion deserves serious consideration. Most 3rd party ODA Unit Members (UM) ply their trade in a seller’s market. They are typically delegated by the FAA as “solo acts”, ie consultant Designated Engineering Representatives (DER) or Designated Airworthiness Representatives (DAR). Their qualifications typically allow them to become instant UMs in as many 3rd Party ODAs as they can handle. UMs working in TC ODAs don’t have that luxury, so they are far more vulnerable to undue pressure than UMs in a 3rd party ODA, and recent history has shown us that undue pressure is indeed a potent issue in TC ODAs.

I am aware of at least one major TC ODA that actively and aggressively discourages their UMs from getting consultant DER/DAR authorizations, which is difficult to accomplish even WITH an employer’s blessing and support. It typically takes several years demonstrating to the FAA that a DER candidate is competent, capable, and shows integrity and a cooperative attitude, which can be shown only after working with the FAA for a certain undefined period of time. Further, some TC ODA UMs have such narrowly defined authorizations that they may not be competitive in the open market. Therefore, it is an unfortunate fact that some TC ODA UMs feel they are hostages with limited options. Authority without accountability can be insidious and corrupting, accountability without authority is demoralizing, regardless of best intentions. Examples of undue pressure abound in the Boeing 737 MAX story:

The U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s final report “The Design, Development and Certification of the Boeing 737 MAX” mentioned undue pressure 39 times, and undue influence 9 times. The report stated “In November 2016, an internal Boeing survey found that a full 39 percent of Boeing ARs said they had experienced ‘undue pressure,’ pointing to disturbing cultural issues that Boeing must confront to eradicate conditions that undermine safety.” (Note: AR is Authorized Representative, equivalent to UM under previous types of organizational delegation.)

The Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) of the MAX mentioned undue pressure 8 times, and their Recommendation R5.4 declared “The FAA should review ODA procedures in order to remove undue burdens and barriers between the Boeing ODA and the FAA and promote cultural changes at both organizations.”

With Mr. Kucera’s information, we now have two of the three major US large commercial transport aircraft industry TC holders accused of undue influence over their UMs, and the whole world is watching.

To get to the point, TC ODA certificate holders have far, far more influence over their employee UMs than a 3rd party ODA, where a DER/DAR can simply walk away and parachute into another ODA if (s)he feels pressured. And, AND, we consultant designees thrive in a limited market, we can always find work, and ODA reputations are known through the grapevine, especially the bad actors.

TC ODA revocation is completely impractical because the FAA does not have the resources to move in and provide full oversight on short notice, and if they were given budget to hire a few hundred inspectors and engineers, it will take years for them to fully grasp the intricacies of oversight. Also, FAA delegation works, period. The first DER was appointed in 1940, and the first early version of ODA was appointed in 1956. The delegation system must survive. Moving on, let’s discuss possible course corrections for wayward 3rd Party TC ODAs, which by regulation are not specifically excluded from consideration. An ODA authorization is not an overnight process, and may be difficult to put in place, but there are options to consider and perhaps be made policy, or exempted from existing policy, either of which I believe may be done with a stroke of a pen:

1. “Uncouple” an existing ODA from the certificate holder. §183.67 “Transferability and duration” prevents ODA sale or transfer to a third entity, but a satellite organization with a separate, independent fee structure may hold the certificate if independence is assured. A small number of embedded FAA engineers and inspectors can help with the transition and operations. This might be done relatively quickly.
2. A “freeze dried” or “off the shelf” TC ODA is a possibility; It may be formed with highly experienced, deeply trusted and prequalified individuals who can respond to short notice. There are many challenging variables that would have to be addressed, such as development of processes and organizational structures, roles & responsibilities, etc, but full FAA authorization may be accelerated. This option may be a bit more far-fetched than the previous possibility.
3. In any case, to shorten the time for separate TC ODA certification, the FAA and certificate holder may embed key employees to “hold hands” and help an ODA applicant get up to speed.

These possibilities cannot be realized overnight and I would certainly not recommend this as a universal solution to any challenges the entire ODA program may be facing. No, I’m thinking it may offer the FAA a tool that will bridge the gap between all and nothing. If an ODA is shown to resist necessary change but is “too big to fail”, maybe the FAA can take less drastic action while maintaining proper oversight and assuring an ODA is able to perform with integrity.

(Full disclosure, Mr Kucera and I have communicated since my own opinion piece was published)
I need to add a clarification: Third paragraph up, I stated "Moving on, let’s discuss possible course corrections for wayward 3rd Party TC ODAs". I meant "possible course corrections using 3rd Party TC ODAs" by deleting "for wayward" and inserting "using".