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Alaska Airlines investigation would halt in shutdown, NTSB says

Congressional leaders are working to get a funding extension passed by Friday

Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy warned Wednesday that a partial government shutdown would force the board to pause its investigation into an Alaska Airlines accident in which a Boeing 737 MAX 9 door plug blew out mid-flight.

Homendy issued the warning in a letter to Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., two days before Friday’s cutoff for some federal spending authority, including the NTSB funding that is part of the Transportation-HUD spending bill.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. said Wednesday he hopes to pass an extension of current-year funding on Thursday. The hope is that the measure would then have time to be acted upon on the House.

“If there was a government shutdown, because the [737 MAX 9] planes are grounded and because we have the information we need, our investigation will entirely pause,” Homendy said in an interview Wednesday. She said in the letter that it would also “dramatically hinder” the board’s ability to begin and complete any other investigations.

Homendy, who was on Capitol Hill Wednesday to brief the committee on the accident, said the investigation is still in its preliminary stage. It’s not clear if the accident resulted from a manufacturing error, she said.

Since the Jan. 5 accident, the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded all Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft and Boeing announced it is evaluating its quality control measures. FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker briefed senators virtually Wednesday and Homendy said that she and Whitaker talk daily about the investigation.

“Right now we need to figure out what happened to this aircraft. The evidence tells us a story on what occurred,” she said. “What we find in this investigation will help the FAA in their efforts to ensure proper inspection, proper maintenance and proper repair.”

Cantwell sent a letter of her own last week asking FAA to share documentation of its safety audits of Boeing and the builder of Max 9 fuselages, Spirit AeroSystems, over the last two years. Cantwell said the briefing also focused on oversight of the FAA’s investigation process.

“Yes, manufacturers have to submit specifications of design and they have to meet those, but you also have to have a very strong oversight, second system of redundancy to make sure that that really does meet the standards of certification,” Cantwell said after the briefing on Wednesday.

Whitaker and Homendy also told senators that important provisions in the Senate FAA reauthorization bill would help in their investigations, Cantwell said. Homendy cited a provision, for example, that would require some aircraft to be fitted with a cockpit voice recorder capable of recording up to 25 hours.

In the case of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, the jet’s cockpit voice recorder data was overwritten because of it has only a two-hour capacity. Homendy estimated that NTSB is missing important cockpit voice recorder data on about 10 accidents over the past several years.

“We are going to want to hear everything that’s going on in the cockpit . . . we can pinpoint to the smallest sound, almost inaudible, with our equipment in the lab so we can hear how the engine is running,” Homendy said. “In this situation all we have then to rely on is the interviews with the crew.”

Cantwell and the panel’s ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said they intend to hold a public hearing on the accident. Cantwell added that she would invite representatives from Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems.

“People get on a plane, they expect the doors to stay on — and so that didn’t happen,” Cruz said in an interview. “My staff and I will continue pressing the agencies to make sure we’re doing everything possible to ensure that these planes are safe.”

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