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Cantwell to accelerate pace of aviation bills in wake of door blowout

Measures would focus on safety beyond the FAA reauthorization effort

An JetBlue Embraer ERJ-190 plane flies past the Capitol dome as it comes in for a landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Friday.
An JetBlue Embraer ERJ-190 plane flies past the Capitol dome as it comes in for a landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chair Maria Cantwell plans further aviation safety oversight following the Alaska Airlines mid-flight door plug blowout on a Boeing aircraft, likely going beyond what Congress typically does for aviation.

On the heels of advancing the committee’s Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, Cantwell, D-Wash., told reporters last week she feels Congress has fallen into a rut of only considering aviation overhauls as part of the reauthorization process. The January incident proves that “we need more sunshine here,” she said, and she intends to hold multiple oversight hearings in the spring that could give way to broader aviation safety and passenger protection legislation.

“We need to start moving towards a process where you move more aviation consumer bills without waiting every five years,” she said. “When you have near misses out here and you have these things happening right now, I want the FAA to do everything they can today.”

The FAA reauthorization bill is just the first step in her aviation agenda, she said, as it includes some provisions aimed at addressing concerns raised by last month’s mid-flight blowout. One would require airplanes to be equipped with cockpit recording devices that save at least 25 hours of audio — an increase from the current 2-hour capability, which caused the audio from Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 to be erased.

Another would direct the FAA to use authority to expedite the hiring process for its positions related to aircraft certification and aviation safety. Cantwell said that provision is not in the House FAA reauthorization bill, which passed long before the door blowout.

Lawmakers have until March 8 to pass a reauthorization bill or further extend the administration’s funding authority, which establishes a tight window for legislative fixes to issues identified in the aftermath of the Alaska Airlines incident. The National Transportation Safety Board, for example, released its preliminary report on the accident last week, but its final report isn’t expected for at least a number of months. FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said its audit of Boeing processes is only about halfway complete.

“The air traffic controllers, more inspectors, 25-hour recordings … all these things you can get done, and then go get more,” Cantwell said. “And that’s in another bill.”

Congress has responded to aviation accidents in the past. Lawmakers passed provisions as part of a fiscal 2021 spending bill aimed at holding Boeing and the FAA accountable for plane crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.

Oversight

Many on the committee have also expressed interest in holding more hearings on Boeing’s manufacturing practices and FAA’s certification process to ensure the right checks are in place, especially considering Boeing’s past issues with its Max aircraft line. 

“We have a really serious problem with this jet,” Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, a member of the committee, said of the Max line in an interview last month. “There have been way too many safety incidents over the last few months to say nothing of obviously the crashes early on in the 737 Max rollout.”

Committee ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Aviation Subcommittee Chair Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., have also voiced support for more oversight of the aircraft manufacturing and certification processes.

“I think the days of trusting manufacturers, whether it’s Boeing or anybody else, to self-regulate are long behind us,” Duckworth said in an interview last week. “My feelings are that this is not the time for me to take my foot off the gas.”

Cantwell said she hopes to hold hearings with representatives from the FAA and NTSB in March to be followed by hearings with Boeing representatives in April. She added she also intends to hold hearings on aviation consumer issues throughout the spring as well.

“This is a chapter in this long saga about what we’re going to do to upgrade oversight of manufacturers,” Cantwell said. “This is a market, and markets need a policeman on the beat, they need rules and they need someone to enforce them. So we’re gonna find out how capable [the Transportation Department] is of doing that.” 

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