FAA lets aerospace firms certify safety of their products
A new FAA program gives aerospace manufacturers such as Jamco America, and soon Boeing, the power to certify their own products as safe — an approach that concerns some critics.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Is self-certification a good idea?
EVERETT — In a conference room at the Jamco America plant here, about 50 framed certificates hang on one wall.
Each testifies that a Jamco project to upgrade an airline's passenger cabins complies with all Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations. But the regulatory regime they represent will soon be replaced by greater reliance on a company's internal watchdogs.
"Those on the wall were all signed by the FAA," said Jamco manager Dave Crotty. "In the future, I'll be signing those myself."
Jamco, a supplier to Boeing and Airbus, last month became the first company in the Pacific Northwest authorized to self-certify that its products meet FAA safety requirements.
It joins just eight other companies nationwide, among them Northwest Airlines and business-jet maker Gulfstream, that have so far been approved to self-certify under the new rules.
But other large aerospace companies that do major work on airplanes, including Boeing, will shift to the new regulatory regime by next year.
Delegating such responsibility to manufacturers has sparked criticism among some safety experts and FAA insiders. But the agency defends the new program as a smart way to farm out the simplest reviews while focusing its limited resources on the most critical ones.
Even Jamco's seemingly innocuous installations — typically new seats, galleys, lavatories and entertainment systems — can raise aviation-safety issues. New materials for interior panels have to pass flammability tests; rods securing galleys in place must hold immense loads; the automatic fire extinguisher built into lavatory-wastepaper bins must suppress a fire.
Under the new rule, designated Jamco engineers will act on the FAA's behalf: reviewing new designs, overseeing testing to ensure the products meet all applicable standards and signing off on certification.
The FAA will only focus on any new design elements that Jamco's in-house inspectors flag as related to safety — for example, a new material that must be tested for flammability. It will also audit Jamco's work through spot checks after the products are certified.
Jim Hall, a former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman and respected aviation-safety expert, criticizes the new approach.
"The federal government, because of shrinking resources, is turning over key parts of transportation-safety oversight" to private industry, said Hall in an interview.
"History tells us this could be a very dangerous path," Hall said.
For decades the FAA has appointed inspectors — either employees within companies or outside contractors — to be its eyes and ears in the factory. Those in-house inspectors report regularly to FAA engineers and must be formally renewed each year by the agency.
Jamco works with about 70 such in-house inspectors today.
Under the new concept now applied to Jamco — called ODA, or Organization Designation Authorization — the in-house engineers assessing whether a product can be certified for safety will report to Jamco manager Crotty, not to the FAA.
The FAA contends that only companies that have rigorously proved their competence can get the new authority to self-certify.
But Hall cites the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia as a possible example of fatal consequences when companies producing aviation products are allowed to self-regulate.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded the wiring of a new inflight-entertainment system might have caused the electrical fire that led to the crash and the deaths of all 229 people on board.
The FAA designees who certified the entertainment system, without the required oversight by FAA engineer, may not have properly integrated the entertainment system's power supply with that of the airliner, the report said.
After that report, the FAA promised to tighten interaction between its certification engineers and the designees working within companies.
But critics say the new regulatory approach will mean less interaction with the agency, not more.
Conflict of interest?
For Jamco and its customers, the new regulatory authority could mean saving time and money.
A subsidiary of a Japanese company, Jamco employs about 250 people in Everett. As well as installing complete airplane-cabin interiors, it designs and manufactures its own cockpit doors, galleys and lavatories.
It manufactured the luxurious first-class suites on the Airbus A380 superjumbo jet for Singapore Airlines. It will use its new FAA authorization for the first time on a contract for a major upgrade of the interiors on 33 Emirates 777s.
On such projects, getting timely FAA certification has often been a struggle, Crotty said.
"By delegating to us, we control our own schedule, our own resources, and our own fate," he said.
He's confident that there's no reduction in safety.
"We never forget for one moment that I represent the FAA's interest first," said Crotty, who has spent nearly 40 years in aerospace and worked for the FAA in safety engineering before joining Jamco in 2005.
"There's no denying the fact that my paycheck comes from Jamco. There is an element of conflict of interest," Crotty said. But such conflicts exist in the established system of designees as well, he said.
Besides, he said, the change is not as dramatic as it sounds. Under the previous rules, the FAA kept a close eye only on safety-critical issues and spot-checked everything else.
"In today's world, they delegate 99 percent of this," Crotty said. "They never see this stuff, these test reports, these analysis documents and drawings."
FAA insider concern
Still, the shift toward more self-regulation troubles some inside the system.
One FAA-certification engineer who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job said relying on audits isn't good enough because it happens after "the airplane is out flying carrying passengers."
He said that inserting a layer of company management between him and the company's engineers increases "the chance of undue pressure" on those doing the detailed engineering reviews.
Tomaso DiPaolo of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), a union that represents air traffic controllers and about 600 aircraft-certification technical experts at the FAA, said the new system "hands the keys over to the companies."
DiPaolo said the union isn't worried about protecting jobs — there is more than enough work for the FAA — but about reduced oversight of safety issues.
Yet Ali Bahrami, the Renton-based manager of the FAA Transport Airplane Directorate, insists that the FAA isn't abdicating its regulatory role.
With a swelling workload, the agency must focus on those areas that are deemed critical, rather than reviewing every routine element of an airplane design, he said.
"This is more [FAA] involvement where involvement is necessary," Bahrami said. "Resources aren't going to be such that you can be there every step of the way. That's just wishful thinking."
Boeing on board
Boeing's transition to the new system by November 2009 will be less dramatic than Jamco's.
Much of its inspection work is already delegated to more than 400 company in-house inspectors who, though appointed by the FAA, for the past decade have reported their findings largely through an internal Boeing organization, said Scott Peterson, director of regulatory- and quality-systems oversight at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Freeing the agency from the "adminisitrivia" of managing all those oversight staff "allowed the FAA, rather than work the day-to-day minutiae, to put more focus on the key safety factors," he said.
"We're not bogging down the FAA," Peterson said. "It's a win/win."
Back at Jamco, director of sales and marketing Shawn Raybell acknowledged the additional responsibility that the FAA has placed on company engineers.
"They've put a lot of faith in us," Raybell said.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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