Boeing Ordered to Adopt Safety Policies in Big Spending Bill

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Sweeping aviation safety measures that would require aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing Co. to enact new safety policies, shield employees from company pressures and toughen government enforcement are included in legislation Congress is poised to approve.

The Federal Aviation Administration reform bill, the most significant aviation safety legislation in the past decade, was a last-minute addition Monday to massive year-end legislation and is expected to pass soon. It is designed to address failures uncovered after two fatal crashes of 737 Max jetliners.

It would require all planemakers to add robust internal safety systems, mandate an external review of the organization within Boeing that uses its own employees to review designs and direct FAA to more closely monitor manufacturers’ processes, according to a summary provided by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Our bipartisan deal is the result of nearly two years of intense investigation in my committee, multiple public hearings on both sides of the Capitol, and countless conversations with the families of the victims and the aviation community,” said Representative Pete DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chair of the House Transportation Committee.

The legislation adds protections against whistle-blower retaliation, creates an FAA whistle-blower ombudsman and shields employees of aviation manufacturers if they come forward with safety issues.

In an unusual move, the bill also directs the FAA to take possible enforcement action against Boeing. The “FAA should hold Boeing fully accountable for any failure to meet the conditions of its 2015 settlement agreement with the FAA,” said a bill summary.

Boeing didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

After multiple safety lapses unrelated to the Max, Boeing agreed to pay $12 million and make internal improvements, but recent investigations have uncovered other possible violations that could trigger additional penalties.

Multiple investigations have found that Boeing’s own employees signed off on the final design of the system that went haywire in two crashes that killed 346 people without fully explaining to regulators how it had changed. The system repeatedly dove the planes as a result of a malfunction and pilots in both cases lost control and slammed to the ground.

While the legislation stops short of ending the practice of allowing manufacturers to use their own employees to assess the safety of designs -- as some family members of victims have sought -- it reverses a decades-long process of expanding such programs.

Another provision would add $27 million a year to help FAA recruit experts in the kind of issues highlighted by the crashes, such as how pilots interact with complex failures and software design. It also requires the agency to bolster anonymous complaint reporting and improve employee training.

It also contains requirements to ensure the FAA requires new airliners to have improved safety alerting systems. All newly designed jetliners have such systems, but the updates to the 737, which was first flown in the 1960s, don’t have them.

The House had passed a version of the bill earlier this year. The Senate was considering a similar package, but hasn’t passed it.

The Max crashes occurred off the coast of Indonesia in 2018 and shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa in 2019. They resulted in a worldwide grounding that is only now being lifted after the FAA and other regulators around the world required multiple changes to the plane.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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