This month's grounding of Boeing Co.'s 737 MAX aircraft has put a focus on the aerospace giant's role in helping to certify its own work, but concerns that the Federal Aviation Administration has delegated too much authority to the private sector have been raised for years.
Half a decade before the fatal crashes of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airways jets, which killed 346 people, the close relationship between Boeing and the FAA drew scrutiny after a pair of lithium-ion battery fires aboard the company's 787 Dreamliner — leading to a three-month grounding of that plane, which is built in North Charleston and Everett, Wash.
"The grounding raised legitimate questions for the flying public about whether the certification process with the 787 worked as well as it should have," Rick Larsen, a Democrat representative from Washington state, said during an aviation subcommittee meeting at the time.
More questions are being raised this time, with the FBI this week joining the U.S. Department of Transportation's criminal investigation into certification ties between Boeing and the FAA.
The FAA — through a program known as Organization Designation Authorization, or ODA — lets Boeing employees evaluate and certify parts and processes for the company's own commercial planes. Some can also issue airworthiness certificates.
Federal regulators say the private-sector employees are well-trained and their certifications meet all FAA standards. The program is necessary, they say, because the FAA doesn't have the resources to do all of the certification activities necessary to keep up with an expanding and fast-growing aviation industry.
Margaret Gilligan, then the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, told the aviation subcommittee that the agency's "certification process is really quite robust."
However, a Government Accountability Office report in 2013 showed the FAA failed to provide proper oversight of those designated to do certifications on the agency's behalf.
"There are also concerns that, when faced with certification of new aircraft or equipment, FAA staff have not been able to keep pace with industry changes and, thus, may have struggled to understand the aircraft or equipment they are tasked with certifying," the report stated.
It echoed a 2011 U.S. Department of Transportation report stating FAA audits showed organizations that had been given authority to perform certifications "had either neglected a critical rule or did not properly demonstrate compliance."
In South Carolina, those worries surfaced when lithium-ion batteries on a pair of 787 Dreamliner flights caught fire in 2013, prompting regulators to ground the wide-body plane. There were no injuries from the incidents.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of the battery fires was a design deficiency and inadequate testing on Boeing's part combined with the FAA's failure to recognize the deficiency. The NTSB noted that "Boeing was responsible for the overall integration and certification of the equipment,"
Still, two years after the lithium-ion battery incidents, Boeing was asking Congress to further streamline the certification process.
Ray Conner, then CEO of Boeing's commercial airplanes division, said the certification process was "not nearly as efficient as it could be, and that causes disruption in our production system, it causes disruption into the value stream of our suppliers and it causes disruption to our customers as well."
Dorenda Baker, at the time the FAA's executive director of aircraft certification service, told the congressional committee in the 2015 hearing that the FAA delegates about 90 percent of its certification activities.
Now, in the wake of the 737 MAX-8 accidents, that delegation is again drawing fire.
Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, famous for safely landing a US Airways flight on the Hudson River, wrote this week that Boeing and the FAA have damaged the nation's credibility as leaders in aviation.
"For too many years, the FAA has not been provided budgets sufficient to ensure appropriate oversight of a rapidly growing global aviation industry," Sullenberger wrote for MarketWatch, adding that much of the FAA's work has been outsourced to manufacturers.
"This, of course, has created inherent conflicts of interest, when employees working for the company whose products must be certified to meet safety standards are the ones doing much of the work of certifying them," he wrote.
The 737 MAX, built in Renton, Wash., is vitally important to Boeing's bottom line, accounting for about 70 percent of Boeing's $400 billion production backlog, with more than 4,600 orders.
Boeing's reaction in the wake of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airways disasters is widely viewed as a public relations failure, with crisis communications expert Ronn Torossian — who runs New York PR firm 5WPR — telling Forbes "it's a case study in what not to do."
For Boeing's part, official statements have been limited. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was supposed to be the keynote speaker at an aerospace conference in North Charleston next week, but his name was taken off the program after the most recent 737 MAX accident.
Muilenburg — in a statement that drew scorn on Twitter days after he had asked President Donald Trump not to ground the 737 MAX plane — said he wanted to reaffirm that "safety is at the core of who we are at Boeing."
Peter Goelz, a former managing director for the NTSB, told The Seattle Times this week that both Boeing and the FAA have a long way to go to restore their credibility.
That's evident in Thursday's announcement that Canadian and European regulators plan to conduct their own reviews of Boeing's plan to fix the 737 MAX rather than rely on the FAA's decision, as has been customary.
"It’s certainly something that the FAA is going to have to address and work on," Goelz told the newspaper. "They are going to have to regain the confidence of other regulatory and safety organizations, to say that the gold standard has been restored."