Streamlining the FAA

Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner, shown in 2013, says the current FAA aircraft certification system is inefficient.

Ray Conner, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, wants the Federal Aviation Administration to focus more on engines and flight systems and less on kitchens and bathrooms.

Conner testified this week before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure about the need for more efficient certification of Boeing’s airplanes, including the 787 Dreamliner the company makes at its North Charleston campus and in Everett, Wash.

There’s often a duplication of efforts between FAA inspectors and Boeing’s in-house inspection team — which has full FAA training and authority — when it comes to certifying parts of an airplane, such as the galley and lavatories, that aren’t crucial to the plane’s ability to fly safely, Conner told the committee.

The current system is “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,” he said.

It’s a complaint that resonates with some members of Congress as they work on an FAA reauthorization bill that focuses on streamlining the certification process. FAA’s current authorization expires at the end of September.

“I’ve seen over and over and over again in my two years here in Congress how government regulation too often, in the name of protecting the public, makes us less competitive and actually does very little to protect the public,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, a Republican from South Carolina’s 7th District.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said he sees “a lot of FAA activity that has nothing to do with safety.”

Boeing has about 1,000 engineers and inspectors on its payroll that have the FAA’s authority to certify certain components of an airplane. The “organization designation authority” program, or ODA, which has been in place at Boeing for six years, is supposed to let the FAA focus on flight-risk aspects while leaving such things as aesthetics to the Boeing inspectors.

Too often, Conner said, the FAA has been reluctant to give up its oversight of things that aren’t directly related to safety.

“I would just say it’s an inordinate amount of time that’s spent on seat certifications, on interior certifications, on lavatories, galleys, these kinds of things that I think we have the capability to do a very good job,” Conner told the committee. “We’re highly trained in these areas. These are things we deal with every single day and we have a full, ongoing commitment.”

The duplication of efforts is delaying Boeing’s ability to get airplanes to customers, Conner said, and hurting its competitiveness.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the committee’s chairman, questioned whether the current certification process puts Boeing at a disadvantage to rival Airbus, which has a more streamlined process to get its products certified.

“Airbus utilizes delegation to a larger extent than we do,” Conner said. “They’ve taken advantage of a greater portion of the delegation in the areas of interiors, the things I just spoke about.”

Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues at the Government Accountability Office, said some FAA inspectors have been slow to adapt to new ODA policies.

“Part of the explanation is that when you go to an ODA and you start to assign those kind of inspection responsibilities outside of the FAA, we’re talking about a significant cultural change from the way the agency has been doing business for eons,” Dillingham said. “It takes time for that to be in place. We’re at the point now where change is possible and change within a relatively speedy time.”

The FAA has been trying to force that change, according to Dorenda Baker, the agency’s director for aircraft certification service. It already delegates about 90 percent of its certification activities, she said, and it audits each ODA program at least once every two years to ensure the private-sector investigators are matching the FAA’s safety standards. FAA inspectors now must document those occasions where they retain certification authority and explain why they took that action.

Congress will study how to improve the certification process in the months leading up to the FAA’s reauthorization. Conner told committee members he’s confident the federal agency is moving in the right direction.

“We have enough resources between the FAA and ourselves to make this happen,” Conner said. “It’s how we use those resources in the most effective way possible so that we can ensure that we maintain a safe and compliant product while still being efficient enough to compete in the highly competitive aerospace industry.”

Reach David Wren at 937-5550.