This article focuses on a specific U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program called Organization Designation Authorization (ODA). The article discusses ODA’s origin and purpose; how it functions in theory and practice; questions raised by accident investigators and other safety experts in the wake of two fatal Boeing 737 MAX 8 accidents (the Lion Air crash on 29 October 2018, and the Ethiopian Airlines crash on 10 March 2019); and significant proposals under consideration for reducing ODA-related accident risks. Brief explanations and definitions about the program have been excerpted from FAA documents; other article content comprises quotes attributed to sources and paraphrased facts derived from multiple sources listed in the References and Further Reading sections.
Essentially, U.S. federal law allows the FAA to leverage its limited resources through delegation. Designees are necessary because the FAA does not have the resources to conduct all the certification activities necessary to keep up with the expanding aviation industry. Using designees for routine certification tasks allows the FAA to focus its limited resources on safety critical certification issues as well as new and novel technologies.
FAA launched the ODA program in 2005 as a consolidation/refinement of previous initiatives developed to implement the agency’s policy on delegated organizations. Under Title 49 of the United States Code (49 USC) 44702(d), the FAA may delegate to a qualified private person a matter related to issuing certificates, or related to the examination, testing and inspection necessary to issue a certificate on behalf of the FAA administrator as authorized by statute to issue under 49 USC 44702(a). For example, aircraft manufacturers may be authorized to approve design changes in their products (as in the development of the 737 MAX), and repair stations may be authorized to approve repair and alteration data.
Specifically, FAA delegates the following: certification of aircraft; engineering design; manufacturing; operations; maintenance; certification of people; medical examinations; and certification of pilots, mechanics (maintenance engineers/technicians), parachute riggers and dispatchers; and knowledge testing.
Teams of FAA engineers and inspectors conduct oversight of ODA holders to ensure that each holder functions properly and that any approvals or certificates issued meet FAA safety standards. The FAA website produces a public directory of ODA holders and their authorized functions (see References).
- Designees — Individuals and organizations in the aviation industry authorized to conduct examinations, perform tests and issue approvals and certificates on behalf of the FAA.
- Organization designation authorization (ODA) — The method by which the FAA grants designee authority to organizations or companies.
As of March 2020, qualified organisations may apply to be holders the following seven types of FAA ODAs:
- Type certification (TC ODA) — These holders manage and make findings for type certification programs, including engineering approvals and manufacturing approvals within a certification program. They may issue airworthiness certificates, but they may not issue an original type certificate (TC) or an amended TC.
- Supplemental type certification (STC ODA) — Holders may develop and issue supplemental type certificates (STC)s and related airworthiness certificates.
- Production certification (PC ODA) — Holders may issue airworthiness certificates and approvals, determine conformity, perform evaluation leading to amendment of its production limitation record, and approve minor changes to its quality control manual.
- Parts manufacturer approval (PMA ODA) — Holders may issue PMA supplements based on test and computation approvals, STCs, or licensing agreements.
- Technical standard order authorization (TSOA ODA) — Holders may issue airworthiness approvals and determine conformity of articles, test articles and test set-ups in support of FAA managed TC or STC projects.
- Major repair, alteration and airworthiness (MRA ODA) — Holders may approve data for major repairs and alterations, issue airworthiness certificates and approvals, and perform aging aircraft inspections and records reviews.
- Air operator (AO ODA) — Current holders may conduct certification or portions of the certification process towards issuance of a rotorcraft external-load operator certificate. Future privileges under Order 8100.15 may add air operator, airman, air carrier, or air agency certification functions.
FAA ODA Regulations and Guidance
Applications for ODAs require proof of qualifications but not all qualified organisations will be granted ODAs. That is, applicants first must meet the needs of the appointing office and the proposed relationship must benefit the FAA. The application process involves disclosure of the authority and limitations requested, including the products and/or articles for which the authorization would be used by the ODA holder and the proposed administrator’s name, eligibility, qualifications and experience. Applicant organisations also must describe their ODA structure, facilities and ODA unit team members with documentation of each member’s qualifications, functions and limitations.
Whether organisations or individuals, the FAA’s ODA-holder designees come from private industry, the FAA says. They typically are experts in aviation or from medical professions who are familiar with the regulations and certification requirements necessary to issue an FAA certificate. Examples of such experts include mechanics (maintenance engineers/technicians), physicians, engineers, inspectors and pilots. Individual designees can either be a company employee or an independent consultant. The term organisation means two or more individuals designated to perform the authorized functions of the FAA.
The FAA is responsible for the oversight and management of all designees. A list of the proposed ODA unit members and information outlining the experience, qualifications, proposed functions, and limitations of each ODA unit member. FAA Order 8100.15 also specifies the required content of the applicant’s ODA procedures manual.
Certification Oversight by Other NAAs
Other NAAs’ certification programs are similar to the FAA’s ODA. Wide use of such programs is confirmed in the introduction to the Joint Authorities Technical Review: Boeing 737 MAX Flight Control System — Observations, Findings and Recommendations, issued October 11, 2019. Despite its many criticisms, the review emphasises an overriding safety benefit (see the Proposed ODA Improvements section below for corrective recommendations):
“The act of delegating — i.e., designating industry as representatives of [an NAA] — is well established and is common practice by the majority of NAAs around the world. Delegation provides NAAs with a pool of expertise to exercise approvals and findings of compliance within the scope of delegated authority. However, the ongoing oversight of designees and ODAs by the NAA is critically important to provide assurance to the NAA that safety and certification work is being carried out satisfactorily.”
An often-cited regional counterpart is the design organisation approval (DOA) program of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). EASA says, “A design organisation approval is the recognition that a design organisation complies with the requirements of Part 21 Subpart J. The approval includes terms of approval defining:
- Scope of approval — the type of design activities including fields of expertise;
- Categories of products — the applicable products such as large aeroplanes, engines, small rotorcraft, sailplanes, etc.;
- List of products — the list of products for which the DOA holder is the type certificate applicant or holder (if applicable);
- Privileges — A DOA holder can perform design activities within the scope of approval, have compliance documents accepted by [EASA] without further verification, and perform activities independently from the agency; and,
- Limitations — Any limitations on the above.”
The implementing rule comparable to FAA’s ODA program rules is European Union (EU) Commission Regulation No 748/2012, Initial Airworthiness Regulation, including Part 21. The relevant section is Articles 1(h) and 8.
Also comparable is Annex I to Regulation (EC) No 748/2012 — Part 21, Certification of aircraft and related products, parts and appliances, and of design and production organisations. The relevant section is Part 21 Subpart J, Design Organisation Approval, and EASA guidance is in ED Decision 2012/020/R, Acceptable Means of Compliance and Guidance Material.
Boeing 737-8 MAX Accidents
In its conclusions, the final report for the Lion Air accident said, “[Komite Nasional Keselamatan Transportasi (KNKT)] recommends that Boeing and the FAA more closely scrutinize the development and certification process for systems whose malfunction has the ability to lead to loss of control of the airplane.”
Among background and findings, the report detailed the relationships of parties under the FAA’s ODA program at the time of this loss of control–in flight.
“To obtain a TC or an amended type certificate, the manufacturer must demonstrate to the FAA that the aircraft or product being submitted for approval complies with all applicable regulations,” the report said. “The FAA determines whether or not the applicant has met its responsibility to show compliance to the applicable regulations. … “During the certification of Boeing 737-8 MAX, there were multiple civil aviation authority certification [representatives] who participated in ‘validation’ of the design. … FAA’s Boeing Aviation Safety Oversight Office (BASOO) responsibilities include oversight of Boeing’s ODA, involvement in certification of safety critical areas as well as novel and unusual designs and assisting foreign NAAs in validation of Boeing products. The BASOO was responsible for the certification oversight and approval for the Boeing 737-8 (MAX).
“The delegated functions for a TC ODA are: establishing and determining conformity of parts, assemblies, installations, test setups, and products (aircraft); finding compliance with airworthiness standards for new design, or major changes to design; issuing special flight permits for operation of aircraft; and issuing airworthiness approvals for articles (export) and aircraft (standard or export).
“FAA Order 8110.4C, section 2.5, titled “Compliance Planning,” says, “For planning purposes, the FAA’s and the applicant’s certification teams need to know in which aspects of the project the FAA intends involvement and at what level. The heavy workloads for FAA personnel limit involvement in certification activities to a small fraction of the whole. FAA type-certification team members must review the applicant’s design descriptions and project plans, determine where their attention will derive the most benefit, and coordinate their intentions with the applicant.”
In similar findings, the interim report (9 March 2020) for the Ethiopian Airlines accident said, “The Boeing 737-8 (MAX) and Boeing 737-9 were granted an exception per 14 CFR 21.101(b) for § 25.795(c)(2) based on the demonstration and justification that security features were present in the type design. These security features must be in consideration in any subsequent type design change, modification, or repair to ensure the level of safety designed into the Boeing 737-8 (MAX) and 737-9 is maintained.” The interim report discusses the NAA’s pre-accident expectations of the FAA’s ODA program, citing official documents from that time.
“Title 14 CFR 21.101, Subpart D, specifies the requirements for demonstrating airworthiness compliance for changed aeronautical products. The current revision of 14 CFR 21.101, amendment 21.92, which became effective on April 16, 2011, states that an application for a changed aeronautical product to be added to a TC ‘must show that the changed product complies with the airworthiness requirements applicable to the category of the product in effect on the date of the application.’” The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) assisted in Indonesia’s and Ethiopia’s investigations of the two crashes. Its widely used Report Assumptions Used in the Safety Assessment Process and the Effects of Multiple Alerts and Indications on Pilot Performance, also reflects high global interest in the ODA program.
“NTSB recommends that the FAA develop robust tools and methods, with the input of industry and human factors experts, for use in validating assumptions about pilot recognition and response to safety-significant failure conditions as part of the design certification process,” NTSB said.
Proposed ODA Improvements
The following organisations also addressed how well ODAs functioned before the two crashes:
- Hearings by U.S. House of Representatives, 6 March 2020 — “Today, nearly one year [and five public hearings] after launching its investigation into the design, development and certification of the Boeing 737 MAX, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Majority Staff released its preliminary investigative findings,” the report said. Two ODA-relevant issues were: “Inherent conflicts of interest among authorized representatives, or ARs, who are Boeing employees authorized to perform certification work on behalf of the FAA; and Boeing’s influence over the FAA’s oversight that resulted in FAA management rejecting safety concerns raised by the agency’s own technical experts at the behest of Boeing. … In the coming weeks, [committee chairs] intend to introduce legislation that will address failures in the certification process uncovered by the committee’s investigation. …
“The committee’s investigation has also found that the FAA’s certification review of Boeing’s 737 MAX was grossly insufficient and that the FAA failed in its duty to identify key safety problems and to ensure that they were adequately addressed during the certification process.”
- U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Testimony 31 July 2014 — In remarks titled “Status of FAA’s Efforts to Improve Certification and Regulatory Consistency,” the GAO’s representative said that Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) — the labor union that represents some of FAA’s inspector workforce, among others — objected strongly to expanding delegation authority through ODAs for approving instructions for continued airworthiness (ICA).
- The Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR): Boeing 737 MAX Flight Control System — Observations, Findings and Recommendations had these conclusions — selected for high ODA relevance — from 28 stakeholder organisations:
- “As with any system that is designed and operated by humans, the certification process can never be perfect, and the two tragic crashes that resulted in the creation of the JATR reveal a critical need to review the process to determine whether improvement and modernization are warranted. … The recommendations do not address the desirability of the ODA concept in general, but they do recommend examining how to help ensure adequate communications in future certification processes about important characteristics of what is being certificated.
- “The BASOO delegated a high percentage of approvals and findings of compliance to the Boeing ODA for the B737 MAX program. With adequate FAA engagement and oversight, the extent of delegation does not in itself compromise safety. However, in the B737 MAX program, the FAA had inadequate awareness of the MCAS function which, coupled with limited involvement, resulted in an inability of the FAA to provide an independent assessment of the adequacy of the Boeing-proposed certification activities associated with MCAS. In addition, signs were reported of undue pressures on Boeing ODA engineering unit members (E-UMs) performing certification activities on the B737 MAX program, which further erodes the level of assurance in this system of delegation.
- “The FAA should emphasise that the ODA system should allow for direct contact between the E-UMs and the FAA technical experts without fear of reprisal for the ODA E-UMs.”
- Designee Management Handbook, FAA National Policy, Order 8100.8D, 28 October 2011.
- FAA ODA Directory – 13 January 2020
- “PT. Lion Mentari Airlines; Boeing 737-8 (MAX); PK-LQP; Tanjung Karawang, West Java, Republic of Indonesia; 29 October 2018,” Final Aircraft Accident Investigation Report KNKT.18.10.35.04 by Komite Nasional Keselamatan Transportasi, Republic of Indonesia, October 25, 2019.
- “Aircraft Accident Investigation Preliminary Report: Ethiopian Airlines Group B737-8 (MAX) Registered ET-AVJ, 28 NM South East of Addis Ababa, Bole International Airport, March 10, 2019,” Report No. AI-01/19, Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau, Ministry of Transport, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, March 9, 2020.