Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Lessons of the 737 Max 8 Crashes:

The Role of Regulation

Regulation has never been easy.  Most of the time, it seems superfluous at best.  Most of the time, most of the systems in our lives seem to work.  Airplanes get to their destinations, food is untainted, and nuclear power plants hum along.  If anything, regulation often seems intrusive--it costs money and it takes time away from other activities.  And at worst, regulation can be excessive, or outdated, or misdirected.

But the 2 recent accidents involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 point to the fact that trying to skimp on regulation, or allowing the regulated entities to have too much say in how they are regulated and inspected, can have tragic consequences.  I am referring, of course, to the crash of the Indonesian Lion Air plane off the coast of Indonesia on October 29, 2018, killing all 189 people aboard, followed by the March 10, 2019 crash of the Ethiopian Airlines flight just after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people aboard.

I will be the first to say that I'm not an expert on aviation safety, and that the investigation of the accidents is still underway, so it is premature to draw firm conclusions.  However, enough facts have emerged to paint a troubling picture of some of the practices of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  Among other things, the FAA had a policy that allowed aviation manufacturers to certify that their own systems complied with FAA's air safety regulations.

I don't usually cite comedians, but Trevor Noah, on the Daily Show, captured the issues very well.

It is of particular note that the FAA's oversight of manufacturers had been criticized by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General (IG).  Among other things, the IG said at different times that the FAA’s system for deciding which technologies carried the highest safety risks was not effective, that those doing the safety checks were not focusing on the potentially high-risk issues, and that the FAA had not adequately trained company employees to spot noncompliance with safety requirements.  In its defense, the FAA has sighted its expanding and shifting role, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.   

Again, I am not the one to pass any judgments on the FAA.  But what is striking is that this discussion is playing out in the news at about the same time that the nuclear industry is calling for the the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to cut back on their inspections and allow for more self-assessments by the nuclear power plant operators.  

At the very least, the timing of this nuclear industry initiative is bad.  This is not to say that NRC's regulation is perfect, or that there are no ways that that the inspection process could be made more efficient.  Not at all.  The message is that the two similar aircraft accidents occurring so close together provides a cautionary tale, both for aerospace regulation, and for other types of health and safety regulation. 

Regulation can always be increased, and it can always be decreased.  And I'd be the last person to say that the NRC, or any other regulatory organization, has found the perfect balance.  But any changes need to be considered carefully.  If self-assessments replace some of the current inspections, how will NRC assure that the utility people involved in the assessments are properly trained and that they are conducting the inspections appropriately?  How will NRC review or check on the results?  How will the public be assured that the same standards are being met?

Regulation should certainly be open to internal change.  Some changes may be spurred by technology changes, some by the identification of new risks, and some by the interest in improving efficiency and effectiveness.  And there can be a role for industry self-assessment.  But, as the recent aircraft crashes so dramatically and so sadly suggest, there can be a serious downside to insufficient regulatory guidance and oversight.  

The NRC has usually been very careful in its decisions on what and how to regulate.  In this time of heightened awareness of the tragic consequences that appear to stem in part from insufficient oversight, the NRC should be particularly sensitive to how it implements any changes in its inspection processes.