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Lawmakers question FAA’s resolve amid Boeing investigations

Whistleblowers say a lax safety culture should've triggered alarms

Michael Whitaker, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Feb. 6.
Michael Whitaker, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Feb. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As senators conduct hearings on Boeing Co.’s door plug blowout and other issues, many are starting to question whether the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of the aircraft manufacturer has been too lenient.

In tandem hearings Wednesday on Boeing’s safety culture and management systems, Republicans and Democrats alike on Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Commerce panels indicated they were concerned the FAA has not been aggressive enough in enforcing safety standards on the aircraft manufacturer.

Although many have lauded current FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker for taking a stronger approach with Boeing, some whistleblowers claim that the FAA has not done enough to address the company’s safety culture and quality control processes since crashes involving 737 Max aircraft in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.

The whistleblowers further alleged that the FAA has known Boeing’s quality control processes were faulty and ignored reports of safety concerns.

An independent panel commissioned by the FAA released a report in February confirming a disconnected safety culture at Boeing and a safety management system that “causes confusion” among employees at different levels. The FAA also completed an audit of Boeing following the door blowout incident in January that found the company “allegedly failed to comply with manufacturing quality control requirements.”

Some former Boeing employees hold that the report and FAA audit came too late.

“There was a time when the FAA was pretty demanding, and what you’ve seen is over the last 10 years or so, there’s been a decline … there’s this belief that their job is to help Boeing, when their primary job is to protect the public,” Ed Pierson, executive director of The Foundation for Aviation Safety and former Boeing manager, said in an interview. He testified at the Wednesday Senate Homeland Security Investigations Subcommittee hearing.

“When the FAA comes out and says, ‘We just did a safety culture audit, and we found all this shocking information, look how bad Boeing is.’ It’s like, wait, hold on a second, you guys are the ones that are supposed to be monitoring and regulating, right? You were the ones who should have determined this and could have determined this years ago,” he said.

Pierson added that the Transportation Department is not involved enough in FAA’s oversight, and the aviation safety group has urged the DOT to audit the effectiveness of the FAA’s maintenance oversight and airline safety reporting.

Clay Foushee, former director of FAA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation, said in an email that the agency has investigated Pierson’s allegations along with those of other whistleblowers who testified before the committee Wednesday. The FAA followed up with Boeing management, requesting more information and implementing corrective actions in some cases, he said.

Foushee likened the FAA’s actions to address whistleblower claims to a game of “whack-a-mole” — Boeing would claim to address something only to have a similar issue crop up somewhere else.

“Nonetheless, FAA should have been much more aggressive with Boeing management, and there is some evidence that is happening now,” Foushee said. “Boeing’s safety culture has crumbled, and it isn’t going to be easy to fix without a dramatic slow-down in production.”

‘Turning around’ the FAA

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in an interview last week that she intends to invite FAA officials to a hearing soon to learn more about how the agency intends to step up its oversight efforts. Cantwell relayed instances of line engineers reporting safety concerns and being overridden by both Boeing and the FAA.

The committee’s own investigation into Boeing will likely lead to separate aviation safety legislation later this year, building on provisions in the 2020 aviation safety law in response to the two 737 Max crashes, she said.

“When line engineers say there’s a problem, [the FAA] needs to back them up,” she said. “That’s what we want to see from an administrator being aggressive.”

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security Investigations Subcommittee that is conducting a separate probe into Boeing, said in interviews that they intend to investigate the FAA’s oversight capabilities. Both said it was too soon to tell what kind of action was required.

“The question is whether these federal agencies have sufficient authority now,” Blumenthal said. “It may just be that they’re failing to enforce the law . . . but if there are gaps in authority, we’ll move forward to fill them.”

Senators from both committees, however, lauded Whitaker for “turning around” the agency in recent months. Whitaker became administrator in October after the position was vacant for over a year.

“I think the administrator is doing a good job, and I think he’s taking his responsibilities seriously,” Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in an interview. “It is a difficult job and there clearly have been problems over the years with the FAA, at times, getting too cozy with industry players.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., chair of the panel’s aviation subcommittee, said at a press conference that she’s hoping to see the FAA use its civil enforcement authority, which allows it to exact penalties for various violations.

“I want to hear real steps towards a willingness within the FAA to take a closer look and scrutinize Boeing actions,” she said.

Pierson said his organization gave 35 recommendations to the FAA and Transportation Department to improve oversight of Boeing, which includes assigning more FAA inspectors at Boeing’s 737 factory and setting up more aggressive task forces to address safety concerns.

An FAA spokesperson said that Whitaker has made it clear “this won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing,” adding that the company must commit to “real and profound improvements,” and that the FAA intends to hold the company accountable.

Boeing said in a statement that the company is acting on the FAA’s findings and has been working transparently to improve safety culture since 2020, although “we know we have more work to do.”

“Boeing is a great American company, and it is unambiguously in the United States’ interest to have Boeing as a strong and vibrant manufacturer of aircraft,” Cruz said. “[But] if the flying public loses confidence, the consequences could be enormous.”

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