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FAA keeping Senate panel ‘in the dark’ about 737 Max approval, chairman says

Wicker said his committee requested information on allegations of whistleblower retaliation

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker.
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Federal Aviation Administration has consistently failed to fully respond to requests for information about training and certification of its inspectors since April 2019, according to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker.

At a committee hearing Wednesday on the FAA’s aircraft certification process, which failed to spot fatal flaws in Boeing’s 737 Max airliner, the Mississippi Republican said his committee requested information related to 65 specific items, including allegations of whistleblower retaliation by senior agency managers and a dozen specifically related to the 737 Max.

“This record of delay and non-responsiveness clearly shows at best an unwillingness to cooperate in congressional oversight,” he said. “It is hard not to conclude your team at FAA has deliberately attempted to keep us in the dark. It is hard not to characterize our relationship during this entire process as being adversarial on the part of the FAA.”

FAA administrator Stephen Dickson testified at the hearing, which follows a year-long committee investigation triggered by two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019.

March 10 marked the one-year anniversary of the deadly crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight T302, which was preceded in 2018 by the fatal crash of Lion Airlines flight in Indonesia. Together, the two disasters claimed 346 lives.

“We are not embarking on a fishing expedition,” said Wicker. “I can only assume the agency stonewalling of the investigation suggests discomfort about what might be revealed.”

In response to criticism by both the chairman and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., of the agency’s lack of cooperation over the past year, Dickson said such a portrayal was “inaccurate.”

“We have provided responses in seven major subject areas in the July [2019] request,” he said. “There are a number of investigations underway already…we are going to redouble our efforts.”

On Tuesday, Wicker and Cantwell released a revised bill aimed at overhauling the FAA’s certification process. Families of the crash victims, including Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samya Rose Stumo died in the 2019 crash, criticized previous legislation for failing to prohibit aircraft manufacturers from directly influencing the 737 airplane certification process.

[Revised Boeing bill in Senate targets regulatory coziness]

Although the bill would allow the FAA to continue to outsource parts of the process to Boeing employees, it would require FAA approval of employees participating in the certification process and develop technical qualifications for them. It also would require the FAA to conduct more research into human reactions, using that research when certifying aircraft.

Cantwell said the bill would task the FAA with understanding interactions between human technology and operation environment.

A pilot needs to be able to fly the plan without the automation,” she said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., suggested Dickson could no longer serve as administrator without responding to the committee.

“The FAA has been complicit in these crashes by failing to be more diligent,” said Blumenthal.

Several members of the committee and Dickson expressed remorse to Stumo, who was present at the hearing.

“I can’t imagine the loss of life and the pain you are still feeling. All of the voices in these efforts to make our skies safer are important,” said Cantwell. “Today’s discussion is about leadership, restoring America’s leadership in aviation safety. The leadership task begins with the FAA.”

Dickson told the committee he “looks forward to raise the bar on aviation safety in the U.S. and globally.”

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