Commerce Committee Advances Bipartisan Cantwell-Wicker Aircraft Safety Reform Bill

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed bipartisan aviation safety reform legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), the committee’s ranking member and chairman, respectively. The Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act of 2020 would require new safety reforms, including strengthening the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) direct oversight of manufacturers’ safety employees and requiring more product disclosure and analysis by manufacturers. It would require integrated system analysis even on derivative aircraft and require manufacturers to identify and disclose all technological changes to new and existing aircraft systems at the beginning of the certification process.

“When it comes to aviation, safety has to be the top priority. This legislation implements new safety reforms that both the FAA and the manufacturers must follow,” said Senator Cantwell. “It moves the FAA back to a more direct supervisory role and requires more robust product analysis from the manufacturers. It also requires the FAA to upgrade and retain technical expertise to do proper oversight and protects company engineers and whistleblowers who see flaws early in the design process. I want to thank everyone that took time to work with us on these reforms, especially the victims’ families, who have shared their experience and their efforts to protect others. I also thank Chairman Wicker and his team for their work on these critical safety reforms and continuing to work with us to move it forward.”

“The Committee’s approval of the bipartisan aviation safety bill is progress toward improving the certification process and enhancing accountability, especially as it relates to the manufacturing of passenger aircraft,” said Senator Wicker. “As the FAA prepares to unground the 737 MAX, this legislation contains numerous provisions that would ensure that the agency performs its safety oversight to the highest standards. I thank Ranking Member Cantwell for working with me on these important reforms to enhance safety for the flying public.”

Key provisions of the legislation include:

  • Restoring FAA Approval of ODA Unit Members and Safety Advisors: Strengthens FAA oversight of the engineers responsible for commercial aviation certification similar to the previous Designated Engineering Representative (DER) model. The bill returns the responsibility of approving and removing manufacturers’ engineers who act on the FAA’s behalf—known as Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) unit members—to the agency, and requires appointment of FAA safety advisers to provide direct and ongoing oversight and communication between the FAA and unit members throughout the certification process.
  • Requiring Integrated Safety Analysis of Aircraft Design Changes:  When manufacturers propose derivative airplane designs, design changes will be required to undergo a comprehensive system safety analysis, a process which currently is not required and was not required for the 737 MAX. This reform addresses the findings of the JATR report, which found that the MCAS was not subject to a sufficient, detailed aircraft-level evaluation. This new integrated evaluation will examine how the proposed changes effect existing systems and impact aircraft performance, human factors, and training needs for pilots and maintenance personnel. 
  • Requiring Safety Management Systems: Requires aviation manufacturers to implement safety management systems (SMS), a systematic and continuous process of reducing safety risks and strengthening companies’ safety culture. This is consistent with recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board, Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR), and other leading safety authorities. FAA has required SMS for airlines but has failed to require the same of manufacturers.
  • Prohibiting Improper Incentives and Performance Goals Based on Industry Schedules:  FAA employees will be prohibited from receiving bonuses or other financial incentive based on meeting manufacturer-driven certification schedules or quotas. The bill also repeals authority for industry-friendly advisory panels to set FAA performance goals that do not prioritize safety in the aircraft certification process. Safety must come first, not accelerated approval schedules. 
  • Establishing Independent Evaluation of New and Novel Aircraft Technologies:  Requires the FAA Administrator to establish a Technical Certification Board (TCB) to advise the FAA on the certification process for aircraft with new technologies and novel systems when it is in the interest of safety. The TCB will give an independent review and verification of the manufacturer’s submissions to the FAA, and recommend studies, analyses, and reports to aid in FAA’s review.
  • Driving Safety Culture By Elevating Concerns of Frontline Engineers: The FAA recently conducted an internal safety culture survey of its certification workforce. In that survey, engineers questioned their ability to raise safety concerns without fear of reprisal and their leadership’s commitment to safety. This bill would improve the agency’ safety culture by providing a confidential channel for FAA employees to report safety issues without fear of retribution. The bill also creates new protections for whistleblowers employed by aviation manufacturers and their suppliers. As the MAX investigations indicated, concerns of the technical workforce and frontline engineers, whether at the agency or the manufacturer, must be elevated and addressed.
  • Building Technical Expertise at the FAA and in Congress on Innovative Technologies:  Authorizes new funding to the FAA for continuing education and training programs to develop and maintain the agency’s expertise on cutting edge and novel technology, and establishes a National Air Grant fellowship program to strengthen technical aviation expertise in Congress and at the FAA.
  • Strengthening International Standards:  Authorizes the FAA to work with other countries to strengthen pilot training standards and enables the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to further enhance worldwide aviation safety and pilot training standards.
  • Strengthening FAA Oversight: The bill makes three changes to strengthen FAA oversight, in addition to direct oversight of manufacturers’ safety employees. It repeals (1) the “certified design and production” (CDPO) authority and makes clear that aviation manufacturers will not be able to self-certify their own aircraft, aircraft engines, and propellers; (2) industry-driven performance objectives and metrics on aircraft certification; and (3) industry-driven performance objectives and metrics on flight standards.
  • Requiring Updated FAA Regulations to Incorporate Human Factors Assumptions: Directs the FAA to update safety regulations based on a review of human factors assumptions. These include requirements for aircraft systems related to flight crew alerting, airspeed indicators, angle of attack, flight guidance, and other flight systems used by pilots. This responds directly to the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations calling on FAA to update its certification policies and regulations to incorporate human factors analysis. The bill also establishes a new Center of Excellence on flight automation and human factors in large commercial aircraft.
  • Identifying Emerging Safety Trends: A new annual report to Congress, conducted by the Transportation Research Board, will identify emerging safety trends in air transportation. Based on accident investigation data from the National Transportation Safety Board, FAA, air operators, and foreign aviation safety authorities, the report will illuminate the latest trends impacting aviation safety, domestically and internationally, so policymakers and FAA can stay ahead of them.
  • Establishing a New Center of Excellence (COE) on Flight Automation and Human Factors: The new COE will address flight automation and pilot response. It will promote and facilitate collaboration among academia, the FAA, and aircraft and airline industry stakeholders to research automation and other technological advancements in aviation and examine issues related to human system integration and flight crew and aircraft interfaces.

Moving forward, Cantwell and Wicker will work with Senate and House leadership to get it enacted into law. Yesterday, the bipartisan Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act passed the House.

Video of Ranking Member Cantwell’s opening statement is available HERE, audio is available HERE, and a transcript is available HERE.

The full text of the legislation is available HERE.