La Follette School Director and Professor Susan Webb Yackee recently coauthored an article about the Federal Aviation Administration’s role in certifying the Boeing 737 Max, which was carrying 157 people March 10 when an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed and killed all aboard.
Yackee and Simon Haeder, assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University, posit that the FAA may have been more concerned about bringing the 737 Max to market than about consumer safety. “As experts on the regulator process, we see this as a tragic example of what happens when an agency must balance competing goals,” they wrote in this article for The Conversation.
Yackee and Haeder provide background on the highly competitive global market for jetliners and Boeing’s efforts to keep pace with Airbus, including concerns that the FAA was delegating too much safety oversight to Boeing.
“This situation – when regulatory agencies created to protect the public interest become overly entangled with commercial and special interests – is known as ‘regulatory capture,’ they wrote. “Many see this as corrosive for society.”
However, business influence on regulators – unless it involves bribes or other corrupt activities – fails to amount to criminal conduct.
“Capture is difficult to prove, especially in an era when businesses must work closely with government to ensure that agency officials have the best and latest technical information to develop and issue appropriate regulations,” Yackee and Haeder say, adding that they believe Boeing – like the FAA – want airplanes to be safe.
Regulatory agencies, though, must confront competing incentives and somehow find an appropriate balance. “Unfortunately, when the imbalance occurs at agencies tasked with protecting public safety, the consequences can be exceedingly dire,” they conclude.