Lawmakers peppered Federal Aviation Administration officials with questions about how the agency approved the now-grounded Boeing Co. 737 Max jet and kept it flying after the first of two deadly crashes despite doubts about its safety.
“The FAA failed to ask the right questions, failed to adequately question the answers they received from Boeing,” Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said as he opened the hearing.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, appearing for the first time before the committee, had refrained from criticizing the agency’s actions before his swearing in in August, saying officials acted in good faith by not grounding the plane until after a second fatal accident March 10.
But under questioning by California Democrat Julia Brownley, Dickson said he would have grounded the jetliner after its first crash had he been FAA administrator at the time. “With what I know now, yes,” he said.
In the nearly six-hour hearing, the agency received some of the strongest criticism it has faced over the 737 Max crisis that grounded Boeing’s best-selling jetliner and has sullied the once-sterling reputation of U.S. aviation regulators.
Dickson acknowledged that improvements were needed and revealed that the agency was considering unspecified enforcement action against Boeing. Another FAA official told lawmakers that an investigation is underway of a whistle-blower’s complaints about Boeing manufacturing practices.
An internal FAA risk assessment conducted after a Lion Air flight crashed off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018 predicted another 15 of the jets would crash over the next 45 years without a fix, according to documents released by the committee.
But the agency decided a warning to pilots was sufficient to keep the plane flying. In March, an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed after a similar failure involving its flight-control system. A total of 346 people died in the two disasters.
The committee’s months-long investigation “has uncovered a broken safety culture within Boeing and an FAA that was unknowing, unable, or unwilling to step up, regulate and provide appropriate oversight of Boeing,” DeFazio said.
Boeing said Wednesday that the company and the FAA decided to “reinforce existing pilot procedures” and that releasing the warning to pilots after the Lion Air crash was sufficient to allow flights to continue until changes to the 737 Max’s flight control system could be made.
The FAA’s own analysis showed the plane had unacceptable safety risks and shouldn’t have been allowed to continue flying without a broader fix, DeFazio told reporters after the hearing.
“That should have rung alarm bells and it apparently didn’t,” he said. “We’re going to be getting into that.”
The risk analysis performed last December, known as Transport Aircraft Risk Assessment Methodology, was done to validate the agency’s decision almost a month earlier to alert pilots to the issue while allowing the plane to continue flying, the agency said in a statement.
The analysis predicted there would be 15 fatal accidents killing 2,921 people during a 45-year period with a fleet of 4,800 of the aircraft. The results were based on what would happen if the agency had taken no action -- and at that point the FAA had not only alerted pilots but was working with Boeing to redesign the plane, according to an agency official briefed on the matter who wasn’t authorized to speak about it.
A committee staffer disputed the FAA’s characterization. FAA technical experts who briefed the committee last week said that the analysis had taken the initial FAA actions into account, and still predicted additional crashes over the plane’s lifetime. The staffer wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters and asked not to be named.
The agency also came under fire from a pair of whistle-blowers.
G. Michael Collins, a former FAA certification engineer, told the committee that the agency’s safety culture has become overly deferential to industry, saying it has shifted over the last 15 years “to where the wants of applicants now often take precedent over the safety of the traveling public.”
Edward Pierson, a Boeing production manager who retired in August 2018, criticized the FAA and other federal agencies for not doing more to examine the potential role that production issues may have played in the two 737 Max crashes, despite having provided them detailed information about conditions on Boeing’s assembly line. He had also reported his concerns to Boeing management which he said weren’t adequately addressed.
“The U.S. regulators’ investigation of these crashes has been as disappointing as Boeing’s insistence that it had no systemic quality or safety issues,” Pierson said.
After several lawmakers cited Pierson’s concerns, Earl Lawrence, the FAA’s executive director of aircraft certification, said “we do have open investigations.”
In addition, Dickson said the FAA may take enforcement action against Boeing for actions related to the 737 Max accidents and grounding. Dickson didn’t provide details, saying only that he has expressed displeasure to high-ranking Boeing executives. He added that his chief concern at the moment is ensuring the safety of the plane as it’s returned to service.
“I reserve the right to take further action and we very well may do that,” he said, responding to a question from Representative Stephen Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat.
DeFazio said that committee staff recently completed a seven-hour interview with Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, who said that he wasn’t aware of the analysis issued after the Lion Air crash that predicted the additional 737 Max crashes without a fix.
Lawmakers quizzed the FAA on its decision to not name Boeing’s faulty automation system in its emergency directive, issued days after the first 737 Max crash. The system, Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS, pushed the nose of the planes down until they crashed.
Lawrence said the agency didn’t mention MCAS because it wasn’t included in Boeing’s own pilot manuals and adding it to the directive would confuse pilots. The FAA issued the emergency airworthiness directive after the Lion Air plane crashed.
“In addition to failing to include MCAS in the flight manuals, training that provided actual experience in detecting, diagnosing and responding to failure conditions was not provided,” said Mica Endsley, a former chief Air Force scientist called as an expert witness.
DeFazio plans to introduce legislation to address the shortcomings at the FAA that have come to light since the two 737 Max crashes. He suggested during the hearing break that the legislation would increase the number of personnel assigned to scrutinize manufacturers, though he didn’t provide additional details on how a bill would do that.
“We don’t just fine them for noncompliance, we say, by the way, we’re going to put a lot more people on you,” DeFazio said.