Senator Slams FAA’s ‘Deliberate’ Attempt to Stymie Max Probe

(Bloomberg) -- A Senate committee chairman sharply criticized the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday for what he alleged were repeated failures to respond to a committee’s investigations, including into two crashes of Boeing Co.’s 737 Max.

Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the Republican head of the Senate Commerce Committee, accused the FAA of delaying interviews with its employees and failing to turn over documents as he opened a hearing at which the agency’s chief, Steve Dickson, was called to testify.

After more than a year of what he said was a failure to respond to the committee’s investigation into whistle-blower complaints, Wicker said the agency had “deliberately attempted to keep us in the dark.”

“It is hard not to characterize a relationship during this entire process as being adversarial on the part of the FAA,” the Mississippi lawmaker said. “Mr. Dickson, I hold you responsible for this.”

Dickson took issue with Wicker’s criticisms at the hearing, saying some of the panel’s requests overlap with information sought by other investigations and that the FAA was prohibited from releasing it.

“I believe it’s inaccurate to portray the agency as unresponsive,” Dickson, who took over the FAA last August after the Max crashes, told the committee. “We are going to redouble our efforts. I hear your frustration and that’s not OK with me.”

A person familiar with the agency’s actions later said that it had provided thousands of pages of documents, supplying the vast majority of the information the committee had requested. In all, more than 7,400 pages of material have been turned over by FAA to the committee.

Of the seven letters the committee had sent the FAA, the agency believes it has responded completely to five, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the sensitive matter publicly. In one other letter, the FAA has provided a large portion of what was sought, the person said.

Additionally, less than 15% of the requested information relates to the grounded Max, added the person.

The hearing, which followed the release Tuesday of a bipartisan bill that would require FAA to take more authority overseeing planemakers such as Boeing, was frequently contentious as lawmakers attacked Dickson and the agency.

Under questioning by Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz on FAA’s initial decision to approve a flawed system on the Max, Dickson said “there were mistakes made.”

Dickson said that the agency had made changes in leadership as a result, though no one had been directly disciplined or fired. The agency had failed to understand the risks in a system on the plane that repeatedly tried to force the jets in both crashes to dive as a result of a malfunction, Dickson said.

Boeing had provided the agency with “incomplete information and fragmented information” on the feature, known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, Dickson said.

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

Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been a frequent critic of the FAA, accused the agency of engaging in a “cover-up” unless it agrees to release more documents on why it didn’t ground the plane after the first crash off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said the agency had to end a “culture of secrecy.” Blumenthal said FAA hadn’t responded to his requests for information.

“I vehemently disagree with your characterization,” Dickson responded.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, said she supported Wicker’s attempts to get more access to FAA data.

Dickson said that the FAA has already begun revising how it oversees aircraft manufacturers following a pair of Max crashes and welcomes input from lawmakers.

He told the committee he has instructed agency employees that there is no deadline to return the grounded jet to service and that they must ensure it is safe.

“We believe that transparency, open and honest communication, and our willingness to improve our systems and processes are the keys to restoring public trust in the FAA and in the safety of the 737 Max when it is returned to service,” Dickson said in his prepared remarks.

A Father Testifies

The FAA’s effort to recertify the Max, which has been underway since the grounding in the U.S. on March 13, 2019, hasn’t been slowed by the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Dickson said.

However, restrictions on international travel might impede the ability of pilots from regulators in Europe and other nations to conduct their own flight tests of the plane, he said. The agency is working with other nations on unspecified “alternatives” to speed the process, according to Dickson.

Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samya died in the Max crash in Ethiopia in March 2019, also accused the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, which conducted a review of the plane’s certification, of failing provide information on the plane.

“FAA and NTSB secrecy must end,” Stumo said in testimony after Dickson’s appearance.

Stumo, who is among family members suing Boeing, has accused the agency of systemic failures to ensure safety.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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