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FAA allows 737 Max flights as Hill takes up oversight bills

Senate committee to take up a bill that would tighten oversight of aircraft approvals by FAA. The grounded 737 Max could soon be back in the air.

A group of Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft sat on the tarmac at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport after the aircraft were grounded by the FAA in March.
A group of Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft sat on the tarmac at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport after the aircraft were grounded by the FAA in March. (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Updated at 8:45 a.m. | A day after the House passed a bill aimed at tightening Federal Aviation Administration authority over aircraft manufacturers in the wake of two Boeing 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people, a Senate panel will mark up similar legislation and the Federal Aviation Administration said it will allow Boeing to resume flights of the aircraft.

Early Wednesday, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order rescinding the grounding order, which the FAA imposed in March 2019, after the second crash. In a video, Dickson, who flew the aircraft for about two hours on Sept. 30, said he was “100 percent comfortable with my family flying on it.”

The House bill — passed by voice vote Tuesday and introduced by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore. — seeks to tighten FAA oversight of Boeing largely by overhauling an FAA process called Organization Designation Authorization that allows manufacturers to certify parts of their aircraft. That process has been criticized as contributing to a lax regulatory compliance environment that eroded the safety culture at the Chicago-based Boeing. 

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s bill  — to be marked up Wednesday and introduced by Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the respective chairman and ranking member of the committee — also seeks to tighten the FAA’s control over the aircraft certification process.

The House bill would require the FAA to review each manufacturing Organization Designation Authorization holder’s ability to meet FAA regulations based on the holder’s organizational structures, requirements applicable to officers and employees, and safety culture. The bill would give the FAA authority to limit, suspend or terminate ODA status following the review. It would authorize $3 million for each fiscal year from 2021 through 2023 for the FAA to complete such reviews.

It would also give the FAA authority to approve each new individual selected to perform certification tasks on behalf of the agency and would authorize $27 million per year from fiscal years 2021 through 2023 to allow the FAA to recruit and retain technical experts involved in the certification of aircraft. 

The Senate bill would also give the FAA increased authority to approve or remove Boeing employees conducting FAA certification tasks. Like the House bill, it tasks the FAA with doing more research into how pilots react to increasingly automated aircraft systems.

The Senate Commerce Committee attempted to mark up its bill in September, but abruptly pulled it because of last-minute amendments.

The current iteration includes a handful of new provisions, including increased whistleblower protections, provisions aimed at ensuring that the FAA works with foreign civil aviation authorities on safety management systems and providing new restrictions on “changed” aeronautical products. Critics have argued that Boeing has sought the easier-to-receive certification on heavily “changed” products when it should’ve sought certification for new products instead.

FAA review

The FAA also took a number of other steps, including publishing the final airworthiness directive for the aircraft, alerted the international community that they had done so, and published Max training requirements for U.S. operators.
Before the aircraft is airborne, he said, the FAA will have to approve pilot training programs for every U.S. airline operating the aircraft.

“The path that led us to this point was long and grueling, but we said from the start we’d take the time necessary to get this right,” Dickson said in a video announcing the move. “We were never driven by a timeline but rather followed a methodical and deliberative safety process.”

In a written statement to Boeing employees, Boeing President and CEO, Dave Calhoun, said the approval came after a “comprehensive, robust and transparent certification process,” that included “a series of meaningful changes to strengthen the safety practices and culture of our company.” The company strengthened its engineering function, established a product and services safety organization and implemented an enterprise-wide safety management system in the wake of the crashes.

“We will never forget the 346 victims of the Lion Air Fli ght 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 accidents,” he said “We will honor them by holding close the hard lessons learned from this chapter in our history to ensure accidents like these never happen again.”

In a statement, the Air Line Pilots Association, a labor union representing airline pilots, said it “believes that the engineering fixes to the flight-critical aircraft systems are sound and will be an effective component that leads to the safe return to service of the 737 Max.”

“While ALPA continues to review the specific enhanced flight crew training details contained in the Flight Standardization Board report, the months-long process, involvement, and collaboration by all segments of the industry has demonstrated an earnest commitment to the aircraft’s airworthiness and improved documentation and procedures,” the union said.

The FAA and Boeing faced heavy criticism in the wake of the crashes, with investigators and lawmakers pointing to a cozy regulatory environment contributing to an unsafe aircraft being permitted to fly. 

DeFazio, speaking on the House floor Tuesday, bashed the FAA’s oversight of the 737 Max, saying the agency “was either unable or unwilling  to conduct rigorous oversight of Boeing during the certification process.” He quoted a 2015 internal email by a Boeing employee that described FAA officials involved in the certification process as being like “dogs watching TV.”

“Our intent is to ensure that a U.S. manufactured plane never again crashes due to design issues or regulatory failures,” he said.

In the Senate, Wicker Tuesday praised the FAA’s process in determining whether to lift the grounding order.

“I think sufficient steps have been taken to give the public confidence and policy makers confidence,” he said. “It’s been a very transparent process…and a number of significant steps have been taken that convince me that the aircraft is now safe.” 

He said he believes that the House and Senate will be able to iron out any differences in their respective bills.

Michael Stumo, father of Samya Rose Stumo, a Massachusetts native who died on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, said his family supports both bills, though it regards the Senate bill as “less aggressive.” 

“We’re supportive of both,” he said, saying he hopes the strongest provisions become law. 

He and other families of victims said they were dismayed about the possibility of the Max becoming airborne once again. He said he would like to see Congress hold hearings on the decision to lift the grounding order on the Max, and urged those flying to re-book if they find out they’re booked on the Max.

“The first crash shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “The second crash is inexcusable. We cannot trust this plane.”

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.  

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