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January 17, 2013

Justifying Trust, from Bikes to Jets

Initially there were assumptions and assurances, and there were programs in place to make sure things were done right. Things were being done in a new way, new results were being generated, and they were breaking new ground. Some questions arose, the spokesfolks gave assurances, the public accepted them, and everybody moved forward. The naysayers were nattering nabobs.

Then there were more problems. Things were not as the experts promised. Things were not right. Schedules and records were changed. A complete review was called for, to ensure program integrity.

Some critics questioned: how can the organization investigate itself? It's a variation of the financial world's TB2F (Too Big To Fail). How does an organization police itself, investigate itself, review itself? Can an organization possibly do that?

And here's where the post goes down two different paths.

Path A: Organized crime Professional bicycling The UCI, the Tour de France, and the Olympics have implemented reviews that they have designed, funded, and staffed and that will answer only to them. Critics say, no meaningful review can come from organizations reviewing themselves. They may be right.

Path B. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner FAA have grounded the B787 for a complete program review - which was a great call, and if it's just the batteries it'll be fixed and forgotten in a year. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of people with the competence to complete this program review outside of Boeing and Airbus.

The 787 is a completely new kind of project; there just aren't any experts without a conflict of interest. Here's an interesting read, which also mentions that Boeing is in a union dispute with their technical experts.

It's a damn sticky problem. How can you build a truly new thing and introduce it into public use without using the public as test dummies for the first twenty years? How can public trust be established and earned, in an atmosphere where so many apparently trustworthy participants (Armstrong, Madoff, Milken, etc) are cheating?

And if the critic's argument in Path A is correct - that no organization can be expected to review and police itself - what does that mean in the 787 situation, when the only competent people are internal or competitors?

Some may recall a similar situation with the 737 rudders. There's very little new under the sun. In the face of all that, I really admire the FAA decision to ground the 787s. Let me go further and say: I admire the Obama Admnistration's decision to ground the 787's. I'm just not sure how they're possibly going to decide to release them.


Iron City said...

I'm not an aircraft certification expert, but am a pilot and engineer building aviation systems that aren't the airplanes themselves.

Aircraft certification and how it is done has evolved from the first federal law on aviation safety,the Air Commerce Act of 1926 that established licensing of pilots and inspection of airplanes.

Airplanes are designed and developed and tested and the designs are approved when they meet regulatory requirements. Then the manufacturer must build each airplane to the approved design. Then after the airplane is built and delivered it's airworthiness must be maintained by people who are certified using procedures that are approved and spare parts that are built to the same specifications as the original parts and tracked through their life.

When an aircraft or part fails the design certificate holder must analyze the cause of the failure and design changes to fix the problem. Until then they may not use the part or can be required to inspect the part in operation more frequently or take some other action to reduce the risk.

In grounding the 787s, requiring more frequent inspections of the wings of some aircraft, requiring changes to certain engines or whatever the FAA follows it's regulations issued under Title 49 U.S. Code that charges the Administrator of the FAA to regulate air safety.

The lessons of air safety, it is said, are written in blood. Sometimes (okay, always in anything big like grounding and airliner type) there is pressure to give manufacturer more time, not inconvenience users, etc that can make it more difficult to make the right decision. But the aviation professionals know the cost, and it is not all money, it is lives, and try to use their best judgement. I doubt that President Obama had much of anything to do with the decision on the 787, but appointees like the Administrator of the FAA and people in charge of aircraft certification and airworthiness did and here is where picking good people pays off.
Whatever the FAA does is done under a public spotlight with lots of Monday morning quarterbacking from the industry, interest groups and people who may not know much. There are quite a few experts around that work for the first and lower tier vendors that build parts of the aircraft, that spend their working lives designing and testing airplanes or parts of airplanes, so I don't think only Boeing or Airbus can review the program is quite true.

You cited the 737 rudders. Before it was finally determined what was wrong the NTSB used their bully pulpit to require the FAA to fund a significant study by National Center for Atmospheric Research into clear air turbulence and incorporate clear air turbulence analysis and considerations into everything. The millions of dollars spent on that were not completely wasted, I suppose, but clear air turbulence had nothing to do with loosing the 737s when their rudder actuators failed.

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