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Revised Boeing bill in Senate targets regulatory coziness

Original legislation was criticized for not clamping down enough on FAA's willingness to let Boeing call the shots in certification process

Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., sanitzes the gavel as he arrives for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on May 13.
Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., sanitzes the gavel as he arrives for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on May 13. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A revised bill that would overhaul the FAA aircraft certification process in the wake of two devastating Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 aims to do more to bar the influence of aircraft manufacturers.

The updated bill, authored by Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the committee, comes just as the panel prepares for a Wednesday hearing with FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson.

Investigations into the certification of the Boeing 737 Max found that Boeing employees and test pilots were often too cozy with regulators, bragging privately about using “Jedi mind tricks” to persuade regulators to approve their aircraft.

The proposal introduced Tuesday would keep the organization designation authorization process that allowed the FAA to outsource parts of the certification process to Boeing employees, but would require the FAA to approve which employees performed the certification tasks and to develop guidance for their technical qualifications. 

[Emails show Boeing employees derided FAA and worried about 737 Max simulators]

It would also bar any sort of limitations on those employees speaking with FAA inspectors and prevent FAA employees from receiving financial incentives or awards related to aircraft certification schedules or quotas.

The legislation, like an earlier version floated by Wicker, would require safety management systems for large aircraft and engine manufacturers that would provide systematic approaches to safety policy.

And it would direct the FAA to create an Office of Continuing Education, which would help FAA certification engineers and inspectors stay up-to-date on emerging aerospace technologies.

The bill also aims to extend whistleblower protections from airline employees to employees and contractors of aircraft, engine and propeller manufacturers. It would create a voluntary and anonymous safety reporting program for FAA employees to report concerns about aircraft designs during the certification process.

Pilot response

Finally, the proposal calls for the FAA to review assumptions about how pilots respond to cockpit emergencies. Investigations of the 737 Max crashes have indicated pilots were overwhelmed by multiple alerts and automation as they struggled to control the aircraft, and that Boeing made incorrect assumptions about how they’d react in such an emergency. 

The legislation requires the FAA to conduct more research into human reactions, and use that research when certifying aircraft. It would establish an FAA center of excellence to study human reactions to such systems.

Wicker’s earlier draft was criticized by victims’ families as not doing enough to tighten the certification process.

In a statement, Cantwell said the new bill’s goal was “to make sure the FAA remains in the driver’s seat when it comes to certification.”

The 737 Max was grounded March 13, 2019, three days after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed, killing 157 people. On Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed off the coast of Indonesia, killing 189. It is the subject of multiple investigations, including a criminal probe.

Still, the company hopes to conduct a key certification test flight later this month as part of its plans to return the Max to the skies. 

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