Boeing Max Disasters Spur Senate Bid to Toughen FAA Rules

(Bloomberg) -- A Senate bill introduced Tuesday calls for more stringent government oversight of aircraft certification in reaction to a pair of Boeing Co. 737 Max crashes.

The bipartisan legislation would address concerns about a controversial system in which planemakers such as Boeing are able to use their own employees to at least partially certify designs, leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee said in announcing the measure.

It would require more direct oversight by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration of planemakers. The issue has been central to the two crashes that killed 346 people off the coast of Indonesia and in Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019.

The matter has enormous implications for the U.S. aviation industry, which has lobbied for decades for more flexible regulations because it says government oversight is inefficient and doesn’t necessarily improve safety. Congress, in a series of laws, had expanded companies’ authority to do the work.

The bill was introduced by Senator Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who is chairman of the committee, and Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the panel’s highest ranking Democrat. The legislation will be discussed Wednesday at a hearing where Steve Dickson, the FAA administrator, as well as the father of a victim in one of the crashes are set to appear.

“Safety is paramount,” said Cantwell in a news release. “A primary goal of this legislation is to make sure the FAA remains in the driver’s seat when it comes to certification.”

Wicker said the legislation “would take important steps to improve safety, especially as it relates to the manufacturing of passenger aircraft.”

Both Boeing planes crashed after a software system malfunctioned, prompting repeated automated attempts to dive. While there were ways to bypass the system, pilots became confused and Boeing has been criticized in accident reports for failing to predict how pilots would react.

While FAA engineers signed off on an earlier version of the system implicated in the crashes, Boeing later made it more powerful and the final designs were approved by its own employees. Boeing’s employees were still required to follow federal regulations and the FAA had the authority to override them.

The Senate legislation would require FAA approval of any Boeing employees appointed in the unit that reviews designs, which doesn’t typically occur now. There are also restrictions limiting how FAA engineers can communicate with Boeing’s certification workers, and the bill would strike down such limits.

Separately, the bill would require makers of airliners and their jet engines to implement so-called safety management systems to identify and mitigate potential hazards. These programs require internal safety audits, robust reporting to regulators and more direct involvement of top managers.

Such programs are required at airlines, but there’s no such requirement for manufacturers such as Boeing.

The bill would also require the FAA to reassess the underlying assumptions about how pilots interact with aircraft systems when the agency reviews the safety of new planes, especially how fight crews respond to multiple cockpit alerts and automated flight control systems. Earlier examinations of the FAA’s approval of the 737 Max found the agency and Boeing misjudged how quickly pilots would react to the situation that occurred in both crashes.

The FAA would set up an anonymous reporting program for agency employees to relay safety concerns about new aircraft designs during the certification process, and whistle-blower protections for airline employees would be extended to manufacturer contractors.

Representative Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who leads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has held numerous hearings on the Max and his committee is also preparing its own legislation to revise FAA’s role in aircraft approvals.

The committee hopes to introduce its own bill “in the near future,” according to a statement. Hearings have revealed “a broken system in need of serious change,” it said.

Wicker initially introduced legislation on FAA oversight on June 2. After family members of victims objected, it went through revisions with the assistance of the committee’s senior Democrat, Cantwell.

The new draft “improves” on the previous version, but is still opposed by family members who are suing Boeing, Michael Stumo, said in an interview. Stumo’s daughter, Samya, died in the March 10, 2019, crash in Ethiopia.

“It’s not enough,” he said.

Stumo and other family members want greater restrictions on employees who are delegated by FAA to review designs, stricter penalties on planemakers after crashes and restrictions on how long manufacturers can revise aircraft designs. The Max was a revised version of 737s originally introduced in the 1960s.

Stumo, who prepared a 135-page submission to the committee, was told late Tuesday afternoon he will be testifying before the committee at Wednesday’s hearing, he said in an email. He said he had earlier been told he wouldn’t be permitted to appear.

The FAA announced in May that it was taking steps similar to what is called for in the legislation, such as actions to prevent “undue pressure” among company employees reviewing designs.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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