By David Shepardson and Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has been “stonewalling” senators conducting an investigation into the design and development of Boeing Co’s 737 MAX in the wake of deadly crashes, a top Republican senator told a hearing on Wednesday.
“This record of delay and non-responsiveness clearly shows at best an unwillingness to cooperate,” Senator Roger Wicker told FAA Chief Steve Dickson at the opening of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on aircraft certification. “Your team at the FAA has attempted deliberately to keep us in the dark.”
Congressional investigators for more than a year have been seeking documents and interviews with FAA officials to shed more light on the certification of the 737 MAX and key safety systems that have been faulted in the two fatal crashes.
Dickson told Wicker he was “totally committed to the oversight process.”
“I believe it is inaccurate to portray the agency as unresponsive,” Dickson said, pointing to the agency’s cooperation in multiple investigations. “There is still ongoing work.”
The hearing comes a day after Wicker and Maria Cantwell, ranking Democrat on the committee, introduced bipartisan legislation that would strengthen FAA oversight of the way Boeing designs aircraft.
The proposal marks the most significant step toward reforms following the 2018 and 2019 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, which killed 346 people in a five-month span and triggered investigations into how Boeing and the FAA determine aircraft meet safety requirements.
Boeing has failed to win regulatory approval to resume commercial service of its money-spinning 737 MAX since the plane was grounded worldwide in March 2019, plunging the Chicago-based manufacturer into a crisis long since compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act of 2020, introduced on Tuesday, would give the agency new authority to hire or remove Boeing employees conducting FAA certification tasks, and grant new whistleblower protections to employees, among other provisions.
In one tense moment later in the hearing, Senator Cantwell asked Dickson about the provision that grants the FAA power to approve or remove Boeing employees tasked with certification work, a system known as Organization Designation Authorization, or ODA.
Dickson said, “We need to have strong oversight of the ODA.”
Cantwell fired back: “I don’t want to be stonewalled here.”
Dickson said he did not think it would add to the safety of the process if the FAA appointed the employees itself but agreed to look at the Senate proposal.
“This is the point. We need an independent FAA,” Cantwell said.
Later, Dickson told lawmakers there were many items in the legislation “that are exactly on point.”
“Those additional resources would be very helpful,” he said, referring to another bill provision that would authorize $150 million over 10 years for new FAA training and to hire specialized personnel to develop technical standards for new technologies and operations.
While victims’ family members applauded such reforms, they are also demanding that critical aircraft systems – like the MCAS flight control system linked to both crashes – be approved by the FAA, not just Boeing, and that manufacturers must be required to re-certify new aircraft derived from earlier models.
“The bill still lacks teeth,” said Chris Moore, whose daughter died in the 737 MAX crash in Ethiopia.
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Truro, Massachusetts; Additional; Writing and additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Tom Brown and Steve Orlofsky)