U.S. Senate Bill Targets Human Factors As Key To FAA Safety Changes

Boeing MAX aircraft
Credit: Boeing

WASHINGTON—A bipartisan U.S. Senate bill targeting FAA certification improvements places substantial emphasis on human-factors research and funding, echoing several reports produced in the wake of the Boeing 737 MAX accidents and subsequent grounding.

The bill, unveiled June 16 by Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, respectively, calls for more stringent FAA oversight of its Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program and mandatory safety management systems (SMS) for manufacturers. 

Both have been cited as shortcomings in reviews of how the FAA oversees certifications and how manufacturers manage their ODAs authorized to act as extensions of the FAA, conducting tests and evaluating results required for product approvals. The ODA process also has been faulted for not maintaining clear lines of communication between FAA experts and their counterparts in industry—another issue the bill addresses.

Arguably the most glaring weaknesses cited in the FAA’s certification process stem from a lack of consistent, sufficient involvement by human-factors specialists. Investigations into the two MAX accidents, Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019, cited fundamental misconceptions Boeing made about how pilots would react in certain emergency scenarios. Boeing’s assumptions were not properly vetted by human-factors experts, in part because the FAA did not have them playing key roles in aircraft certification. The agency has pledged to change this and plans to hire at least eight experts in its current fiscal year. It also has shifted human-factors expertise to both the MAX recertification effort and other major projects, including the Boeing 777X certification.

The Senate bill would take this further, requiring establishment of a human-factors “center of excellence.” It also authorizes $10 million annually through 2030 to hire scientific and technical advisors “with expertise in new and emerging technologies” to help the agency ensure its protocols and regulations do not become outdated.

Lawmakers also want the agency and industry to “develop a research plan to address the integration of human factors” into aircraft design and certification. A separate review would focus on current regulations and guidance, including but not limited to FAA Part 25.1302 (Installed Systems and Equipment for Use by the Flightcrew), 25.1309 (Equipment, Systems and Installations) and 25.1322 (Flightcrew Alerting).

Each of those regulations emanated from a major flightdeck human-factors study completed in 1996. But the new regulations and guidance did not change some key industry tenets, including the assumptions Boeing relied on when evaluating a maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS)-related uncommanded stabilizer scenario. Boeing’s reliance on such assumptions—specifically that a crew would identify and react to a runaway stabilizer within 4 sec.—combined with questionable system design decisions and the FAA’s lack of objections, helped set the stage for both MAX accidents. The model has been grounded since just after the second accident.

While Boeing works to finalize mandated changes to the MAX, the FAA is facing calls from multiple organizations to bolster its human-factors expertise and update key rules and guidance. 

“This bill makes it clear the FAA is in charge of the certification workforce and the approval process. Additionally, it requires the FAA to act on the NTSB’s recommendations on new safety standards for automation and pilot training,” said Cantwell.

In September 2019, in recommendations stemming from its insight into both MAX accidents, the NTSB called on the FAA to review and revamp its human-factors related pilot-reaction assumptions.

“It’s critically important that the FAA keep pace with skill levels and new technology to oversee the certification process,” Cantwell continued. “The Human Factors Center of Excellence and Office of Continuing Education will help ensure FAA inspectors have the expertise they need to do their job.”

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.