A report issued Monday by the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee into conflicts of interest between the FAA and Boeing during the certification of the 737 Max airliner exposed similar undue pressure brought to bear on production staff working on GE Aviation’s GE9X, the engine that powers the new 777X widebody. One of seven “whistleblowers” named in the report, former GE Aviation engineer Richard Kucera, described finding himself in an untenable situation in which he held responsibility for conducting engine conformity tests on behalf of the FAA while GE charged him with preparing the engines for the same tests.
The report, which along with damning accounts of “relentless schedule pressure” on the 737 Max and similar pressure on Boeing 787 production staff that led to quality “issues” in the supply chain that persists to this day, also highlighted Kucera’s claims that GE Aviation failed to meet its obligations to prevent interference or conflicting duties that affect the performance of authorized functions on behalf of the FAA.
As part of his FAA duties at the GE Aviation Organization Designation Authorization (ODA), Kucera conducted conformity inspections to ensure regulatory compliance. According to the report, Kucera identified 20 to 30 discrepancies that needed resolution before the engine could be added to GE’s production limitation record. According to Kucera, GE subsequently threated to fire him. In an April 1, 2021, email to coworkers, his supervisor, and his supervisor’s superior, Kucera reported the alleged coercion.
“[My supervisor] has, using authority granted to him by GE, threatened me, a fellow ODA administrator, with termination for having potentially jeopardized the schedule of GE’s product certification [the GE9X] in the performance of my duties representing the FAA,” he said. “That is, in my opinion, reckless, inappropriate, unproductive, and . . . unbecoming of the primary administrator of one of the FAA’s preeminent ODA units.”
Following the eventual certification of the GE9X engine, Kucera’s supervisor—who also served as the GE ODA lead administrator—put him on a “coaching plan” that would require Kucera to “to demonstrate sustained improvement” in his performance or suffer further so-called employment actions “up to and including termination.” Kucera told the committee that on March 19, 2021, a human resources representative from GE Aviation “delivered the same termination threat verbally” and informed him of the coaching plan.
For its part, GE said it has thoroughly investigated Kucera’s claims and that it disagrees with his characterizations. "Safety is our first priority, and we thoroughly investigated these claims following rigorous compliance procedures and with full transparency to our regulator,” it said in a statement. “The independence of our ODA is fundamental to GE Aviation certification activities, and the investigation found no undue influence."
In fact, GE put Kucera on the coaching plan five months after the September 2020 certification of the 9X and insisted it intended the move to “help him do a better job as an FAA designee.” It further said Kucera did not make any allegations related to product safety, nor did he allege improprieties during certification of the GE9X or other engines.
However, on March 25 of this year, Kucera did file an “integrity concern” against his supervisor through GE’s internal human resources system. In the complaint, Kucera called holding him responsible for the condition of the GE9X while he represented the FAA in conformity determinations “an improper use of…managerial authority” on the part of his supervisor. The engineer also claimed that his superiors gave him similar responsibility for the new GE Catalyst turboprop, thereby interfering with his ability to make conformity determinations on the FAA’s behalf for that program.
Kucera further reported how GE increased the workload of ODA unit members, thereby creating undue pressure. For example, said the report, GE Aviation had assigned just one ODA unit member responsibility for type certification conformity activities in its Prague facility, the site of the Catalyst’s development activity. According to Kucera, the sole ODA unit member in Prague was “overwhelmed by non-ODA unit duties” and not “given enough time to fulfill properly his ODA unit duties. Kucera called the circumstance an “overuse of GE ODA Inspection unit members for non-ODA unit duties, thereby making them unavailable for ODA unit duties.”
According to GE, it has maintained staffing levels in accordance with its strategic plan. “The ODA is fully staffed with qualified and trained unit members, as confirmed by our most recent FAA audit, which includes an assessment of adequate capacity and capability to perform the authorized functions,” the company said. “ODA unit members were not involuntarily separated from GE during the COVID-related downsizing. Some members opted to voluntarily retire, but these changes were carefully managed with full knowledge-transfer plans and procedures.”
GE added that rather than subjecting ODA members to overwork, a decline in certification activities as the company neared the end of its 10-year product renewal cycle resulted in a reduced ODA workload.