Aircraft Certification:

New FAA Approach Needed to Meet Challenges of Advanced Technology

RCED-93-155: Published: Sep 16, 1993. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 1993.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) process for certifying designs of transport aircraft to meet safety standards, focusing on whether FAA staff are: (1) effectively involved in the certification process; and (2) competent in assessing the latest technologies.

GAO found that: (1) FAA ability to evaluate and certify new aircraft technologies is questionable because, in response to an escalating workload, FAA has increasingly relied on manufacturers for safety certification; (2) FAA has not clearly defined staff responsibilities or performance standards to ensure that staff are effectively involved in the certification process; (3) aircraft manufacturers' technical expertise and commitment to safety have kept the number of design-related safety problems to a minimum; (4) FAA efforts to increase its technical expertise and build an in-house team of experts to oversee the certification process may be flawed because FAA has not defined when these experts are to be involved in the certification process; (5) although FAA has previously identified and attempted to address its certification staff training deficiencies, inadequacies remain because training programs do not develop staff members' competence in specific fields and the availability of technical courses remains limited; and (6) FAA plans to improve training and staff retention include new technical certification training programs and plans to create technical career paths for certification engineers; however, these programs may not be adequate to overcome current training and staff limitations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA issued new guidance in May 1995 and in May 1996 clarifying its role and degree of involvement in the certification process. The guidance lays out functions that must be carried out by FAA and establishes a framework for delegating functions to designated engineering representatives. FAA also issued new guidance on a standardized process for overseeing and evaluating the work of the designated engineering representatives, which became effective in October 1995.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA staff are effectively involved in the certification process and competent in new and complex technologies, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to define a minimum effective role for FAA in the certification process by identifying critical activities requiring the agency's involvement or oversight, establishing guidance on the necessary level and quality of the oversight of designated engineering representatives, and developing measures through which staff members' performance and, effectiveness can be evaluated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA completed a formal assessment of the need for national resource specialists in January 1995. FAA identified a need for 18 such specialists. FAA received authority to begin recruiting specialists in early 1996 and, as of July 1996, had hired 2 additional specialists. FAA also issued guidance in May 1996 setting out the role of these specialists and points in the certification process when they should be involved, such as at early meetings.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to: (1) formally examine the need to hire national resource specialists (NRS) in areas of technological advancement over the last 14 years; and (2) require NRS involvement early in the certification process and at other key junctures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with GAO's recommendations, FAA has developed a strategic plan for technical training of its certification staff, developed training profiles for each certification discipline, developed and offered several new training courses, issued a manual listing the availability of technical courses outside FAA, and taken steps to keep the manual current. FAA officials stated that the number of technical courses offered and taken by certification inspectors has increased since GAO's 1993 report was issued.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA staff receive the technical training needed, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to establish specific training requirements for each certification discipline, ensure that each staff member meets those requirements, and keep the training as current as possible by identifying the training in new technologies that is available at universities, private industry, and other government agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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