The agency’s critics have charged that it is too close to Boeing, one of the country’s biggest businesses, and is unable to sufficiently hold it accountable.
Survey results, along with focus group sessions, reveal that at least some FAA employees have similar concerns. They expressed worries about retaliation if they were too persistent in raising safety issues and said Boeing and other companies were able to escalate disagreements to senior FAA managers who were more compliant.
An employee interviewed by a private company the FAA hired to do the survey said the message they got was “ ‘Don’t rock the boat’ with Boeing.” Another said the jet maker could overawe regulators.
“It feels like we are showing up to a knife fight with Nerf weapons,” one employee said. “It is a challenge to be an equal match with Boeing in the meetings/conversations.”
The results of the survey, to which about a quarter of the safety branch’s 7,000 employees responded, and an accompanying report by a team from Mitre Corp. were obtained by The Washington Post. They were first reported by Reuters.
In a letter to employees Friday, Ali Bahrami, head of the safety branch, said he was troubled by the findings.
“I want you to know that we take this feedback very seriously and will be working with you to restore your confidence in us and ensure your safety concerns are heard,” he wrote in an excerpt shared by the FAA.
In a statement, the agency said it was implementing a new “voluntary safety reporting program” that would allow employees to confidentially share their concerns. The agency said FAA Administrator SteveDickson and Bahrami found it “unacceptable” that the safety branch’s leaders did not have the confidence of their staff.
Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents employees in the safety office, said the union had already been seeking such a reporting program and that the survey results only reinforce the need for it.
Since the second Max crash in March 2019, the jet has been grounded by aviation regulators around the world. The FAA has been reviewing design fixes developed by Boeing, giving them preliminary approval this week and issuing a report designed to demonstrate how closely they have been reviewed.
Investigations that followed the crashes found that Boeing was successfully able to minimize the significance of a software feature implicated in the crashes, which allowed it to avoid expensive training requirements for the new jet. And emails released by congressional investigators showed Boeing employees discussing how to manipulate the FAA’s oversight team.
An FAA program known as Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) has attracted particular scrutiny. It allows Boeing and other companies to conduct safety work on behalf of the FAA but has been criticized for putting people whose salaries are paid by industry in important safety jobs.
This week, the FAA proposed fining Boeing $1.25 million over allegations that company mangers responsible for the 787 Dreamliner put pressure on employees in the company’s ODA office to rush inspections.
Respondents to the FAA review said they, too, were concerned about the program, saying it “is causing FAA to move further away from its safety mission and results in confusion about the FAA’s roles.”
After the FAA proposed the fine this week, a Boeing spokesman said that “pressure of any type is inconsistent with our values and will not be tolerated.”
The leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees aviation, have introduced legislation that would give the FAA more authority over the program, and members of the House are expected to propose similar changes.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), one of the sponsors of the legislation, wrote to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Friday, saying the survey results and allegations prompting the fine showed the need for overhauling the FAA’s safety operations.
“The agency must fully acknowledge and address the underlying problems with the certification process and delegation that led to repeated instances of undue pressure,” she wrote. “Instead of defending the status quo, the FAA should take immediate action to enhance agency oversight of the ODA program.”
At a hearing in June, Dickson questioned the value of such changes, but the survey suggests they might be welcome among rank-and-file employees.
The survey included an open-ended question that asked respondents to suggest one thing that could be done to improve the safety culture within the FAA’s aviation safety organization. Among the most common responses: Address political, economic, lobbying and industry pressure that employees may encounter and increase FAA’s regulatory authority.
While Dickson has publicly shared his commitment to safety since taking over the agency in July 2019 and earned generally positive reviews from respondents to the survey, some employees said they didn’t think enough has been done to hold FAA leaders accountable after the crashes.
“One reason people distrust upper management is because of communications from leadership that ‘our processes are fine,’ even after 340-plus people died,” an employee said during a focus group.