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The crashes of two Boeing 737 Max aircraft within the span of five months raises the question: Who is making sure airplanes are safe?

Don't be too quick to reply. Yes, the Federal Aviation Administration's mission is to "provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world," but for decades it has shared the burden with the companies whose products it certifies.

When it came to approving the design of the Max, that partnership did not work. But before deciding that private companies cannot act in the FAA's stead, consider this.

Between 1921 and 1925, Underwriters Laboratories (known as UL) was responsible for making sure planes were safe. It employed 33 inspectors who created manufacturing standards and inspected and certified the finished airplanes, according to Rachel Madden, a UL archivist.

Insurance companies were the first to recognize that aviation needed oversight, though it wasn't long before Congress passed the federal Air Commerce Act, paving the way for the FAA.

Northbrook-based UL continues to validate new technology, such as lithium-ion batteries and autonomous vehicles, as part of what Madden describes as "work for the safety of people."

But UL had nothing to do with the 737 Max. Safety of the Max was the responsibility of the FAA and Boeing. Fresh from receiving a certificate of airworthiness in 2017, Max jetliners in Indonesia and Ethiopia plunged to earth, leaving 346 people dead.

Now, some of us active in air safety are wondering if UL's past role might provide a road map for the future. "There is no reason why an organization like the FAA should have to hire Ph.D.s and have enough technical people to keep up with Boeing," said Sandy Murdock, a former deputy administrator of the FAA. "We should have Underwriters Labs do the work and have Boeing pay for it."

To be clear, UL wasn't enthusiastic about the idea when I presented it. But that's not the point. If private labs can do what the FAA lacks the funds and personnel to do for itself, and if users of the certification process were required to pay for the testing, that truly would be revolutionary. "There's no question the current system is broken and it needs reform urgently and immediately," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told me recently.

The 737 Max had new engines that required new flight control software. But the FAA was not aware of how the new software would impact the plane's flying characteristics. Nor could it say if Boeing's hazards analysis was adequate, according to an international review board. These issues were attributed in part to programs that give manufacturers such as Boeing authority to police themselves.

"We identified shortcomings," said Christopher Hart, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who chaired the review committee.

Giving companies such as Boeing the ability to certify their own products is a workload-shedding, budget-saving practice that has been used for decades. Just before the Lion Air disaster in Singapore, even more power was given to airplane manufacturers through the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act.

Although the FAA discouraged transferring more authority to manufacturers, claiming it would "not be in the best interest of safety," then-acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said some delegation was essential. Taking back all the tasks associated with certifying new airplanes would require an additional $1.8 billion and a 10,000-person increase in its staff, Elwell said during a Senate hearing in March.

Looking at the example set by UL as the nation's first air safety arbiter, we can see the value of bringing independent specialists into a process that is too reliant on the expertise of manufacturers who are in turn motivated by the bottom line.

Perhaps the inadequate testing of Max software would have been detected had it been subjected to outside review. "It would be safer for the public if the testing of the software was not being driven by the company trying to make the product," said Eric Proegler, president of the Association for Software Testing. It takes time and knowledge to simulate all the ways software can fail, he said, and it "is unlikely that regulators can do it."

Time and expertise usually means expensive. Should manufacturers cover that cost? Former FAA official Murdock says yes. "The one document that goes in through the front door of the FAA's headquarters and comes back out, and in the transition gains the greatest economic value, is a type certificate," Murdock said. "You can sell that airplane anywhere in the world."

In 2017, the year the Max made its first commercial flight, it was already the fastest-selling airliner in Boeing history. Boeing closed out the year with record operating cash flow and $93.4 billion in revenues.

In my 25 years in aviation, I've seen many proposals crash and burn. Boeing and other aviation stakeholders will not likely warm to the idea of paying for the privilege of more robust oversight.

Yet aviation is as safe as it is today because of scrupulous attention to creating and enforcing safety standards. That began nearly a century ago, not in a government office but in a private lab.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Christine Negroni is an aviation writer, aviation safety specialist and author of "The Crash Detectives Investigating the World's Most Mysterious Air Disasters."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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