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FAA Certification of Composite Aircraft

In September 2011, The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that, overall, FAA did a good job following its certification processes in assessing the composite fuselage and wings of Boeing's 787 against its airworthiness standards.(  and   However, a new GAO report has indicated that the approval process--referred to as certification--presents challenges for FAA in terms of resources and maintaining up-to-date knowledge of industry practices, and identified two issues that may hinder FAA's efforts to conduct certifications in an efficient and timely manner. 

FAA plans to continue analyzing data reactively to understand the causes of accidents and incidents, and to augment this approach through implementation of a safety management system (SMS). SMS is a proactive approach that includes continually monitoring all aspects of aviation operations and collecting and analyzing appropriate data to identify emerging safety problems before they result in death, injury, or significant property damage. FAA has put in place various quality controls for its data; however, GAO identified a number of areas where FAA does not have comprehensive risk-based data or methods of reporting that capture all incidents. The following are among the key areas GAO identified as needing improved data collection and analysis.

  • Runway and ramp safety. Additional information about surface incidents could help improve safety in the airport terminal area, as data collection is currently limited to certain types of incidents, notably runway incursions, which involve the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on a runway and certain airborne incidents, and does not include runway overruns, which occur when an aircraft veers off a runway or incidents in ramp areas, which can involve aircraft and airport vehicles.
  • Airborne operational errors. FAA's metric for airborne losses of separation--a type of operational error--is too narrow to account for all potential risk.
  • General aviation. FAA estimates of annual flight hours for the general aviation sector, which includes all forms of aviation except commercial and military, may not be reliable.
  • Pilot training. FAA does not have a comprehensive system in place to measure its performance in meeting its annual pilot school inspection requirements.

 GAO concluded that although FAA has taken steps to address safety oversight issues and data challenges in many of these areas (e.g.FAA is planning to develop a program to collect and analyse data on runway overruns), but it will be several years before FAA has obtained enough information about these incidents to assess risks. Sustained attention to these data collection and analysis issues will be necessary to ensure that FAA can more comprehensively and accurately assess and manage risk.  This report, entitled "FAA Efforts Have Improved Safety, but Challenges Remain in Key Areas" can be accessed at: