DeFazio (D-Ore.), pressing FAA officials for answers at his committee’s fifth hearing on the Max, said the agency had “failed.” Two of the airliners crashed within five months, killing 346 people. The FAA “didn’t provide the regulatory oversight necessary to ensure the safety of the flying public,” DeFazio said.
“We are humbled when our best efforts fail,” FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson told the committee. Still, he added, “The system is not broken.
“What we have done historically we cannot be satisfied with,” Dickson said. “We’ve got to continue to put process improvements in place. We’ve got to support our people. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right skill sets in our workforce and that we’re making decisions the right way with safety as our absolute highest priority,” said Dickson, a former senior executive for Delta Air Lines who was confirmed to his post in July.
That requires the “separation of safety issues from business issues. There can’t be undue pressure on one side or the other,” Dickson added.
But G. Michael Collins, a retired aerospace engineer with 29 years at the FAA, testified that the “safety culture” at the agency is much different than it was decades ago. He said management in those early years was “very supportive of engineers” as they evaluated airplane designs and when those engineers “identified features that did not comply” with federal regulations.
Collins said that was not what he saw as Boeing sought the FAA’s approval for the Max.
“I have heard FAA executives state that safety is their highest priority. I agree that safety was their highest priority when I started working at the FAA in 1989,” Collins said. “However, over the last 15 years or so, FAA management culture has shifted to where the wants of applicants now often take precedence over the safety of the traveling public.”
The worldwide fleet of Max aircraft was grounded in March after crashes in Indonesia in October 2018 and Ethiopia in March killed a total of 346 people.
Investigators said a flawed flight control feature on the Max, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), contributed to the crashes by forcing the noses of the two planes down repeatedly as pilots struggled to regain control.
A key focus of the questioning Wednesday was on who at the FAA knew of the risk analysis and what the agency did with the information.
DeFazio said the committee met for seven hours with Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, in part to discuss the FAA’s risk analysis showing the potential for 15 crashes in coming decades if problems with the plane were not corrected.
“He says he was unaware of it. He knew there was such a process. But he didn’t know they had evaluated this plane and this system,” DeFazio said.
Under questioning by Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), Dickson said he “can’t speak for who saw it. . . . Again it was a decision tool,” Dickson said.
Rep. Hank Johnson, (D-Ga.) also pressed Dickson and Earl Lawrence, the head of the FAA’s certification service, for answers on how the agency responded to the assessment.
“What was done about this report when it was first received by the FAA?” Johnson asked.
Lawrence said “there wasn’t an additional action” because the FAA had issued a safety order and a decision had already been made to redesign the flight control feature. The report addressed “how much time would we allow Boeing to redesign this system,” Lawrence said.
“Can any of you admit the FAA made a mistake in not taking action on this?” Johnson asked.
“I would say this is something we need to look at very closely,” Dickson said. “Obviously the result is not satisfactory.”
Boeing, in a statement, said an FAA review board found that actions by the company and regulator “sufficed to allow continued operation of the MAX fleet until changes to the MCAS software could be implemented.”
DeFazio said his committee’s requests to speak with lower-level FAA staff members who made decisions on the Max “were being stonewalled” under Dickson’s predecessor at the FAA, but that such interviews have now been scheduled.
“I don’t know how high up this went, and I think that’s one of the problems,” DeFazio told Dickson. “I think most of these decisions were made by captive regulator managers in the Seattle office, and no one in the national offices knew a damn thing about it.”
Dickson voiced support for FAA personnel, from Bahrami at the top to lower-level employees, and said a broad view is required to improve safety.
“To prevent the next accident from happening, we have to look at the overall aviation system and how all the pieces interact,” Dickson said in his written testimony.
Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) quoted from a transcript of the interview with Bahrami, the FAA’s top safety official, in which he said he wasn’t aware of a Boeing document warning that if pilots didn’t respond to MCAS within 10 seconds, the results would be catastrophic.
Garcia asked Dickson whether Bahrami ought to have known about that document, which was released at a previous committee hearing, and another one he also said he was not familiar with.
“I will have to talk to him about it,” Dickson said.
Asked after the hearing if he was surprised about what Bahrami told investigators he didn’t know, DeFazio said, “I don’t know what he does on a daily basis since he doesn’t seem to know much of anything.”
Paul Njoroge, whose family died on the Ethiopian Airlines flight, said FAA officials have been trying to dodge accountability and said he thought Bahrami was lying when he told congressional investigators that he didn’t know about some of the risks of the Max.
“He should have known,” Njoroge said. “If he did not know, then he should be fired. That’s the thing. It’s as simple as that.”
An FAA spokeswoman did not immediately provide a response from Bahrami.
Collins testified about his involvement with rudder cables on the Max while he was at the FAA. DeFazio raised that issue in a letter to the FAA last month, saying it appeared that agency managers overruled safety concerns in deference to Boeing.
The rudder is a critical feature that helps control where the nose of an airplane is headed. Collins said agency engineers objected when Boeing pushed to avoid updated standards on how the cable should be protected against an engine failure. The danger is that debris from such a failure could cut the cable and render the plane uncontrollable.
In a written response to DeFazio’s committee this past Friday, Dickson said “several technical specialists disagreed with the proposed design” Boeing sought.
But Collins said “a total of at least 13 FAA aerospace engineers, one pilot, and at least four FAA managers disagreed” with Boeing’s position. Despite that, FAA managers ended up backing Boeing, Collins said.
“The existing FAA management safety culture is broken and demoralizing to dedicated safety professionals,” Collins said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seemed to grow increasingly impatient with some of the FAA officials’ responses, including Dickson’s reluctance to admit the agency had made mistakes in certifying the Max was safe and responding to the first crash.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) pressed Dickson to admit the agency had erred.
“You’ve obviously been advised by counsel or somebody to not admit that the FAA made a mistake and I’m just giving you — your counsel is giving you bad advice. Did the FAA at some point in this process make a mistake?”
“Yes,” Dickson finally said.
Chris Moore, whose daughter Danielle died on the Ethiopian Airlines flight, said he met Dickson in Montreal this fall and was impressed by the new FAA leader, hopeful that his straightforward style would allow him to make changes at the agency.
“I saw a totally different person here today,” Moore said regarding Dickson’s hearing appearance. “I have no confidence at all. You think you have a change. Now we’re back at square one.”
Also on Wednesday, Edward Pierson, a former senior manager at Boeing’s Renton, Wash., factory, testified that he warned company executives about production issues at the factory plant where the 737 Max jets were being built. His recommendations to shut down production were rebuffed, he said in his prepared testimony.
“I remain gravely concerned that the dysfunctional production conditions may have contributed to the tragic 737 Max crashes and that the flying public will remain at risk unless this unstable production environment is rigorously investigated and closely monitored by regulators on an ongoing basis,” he said in the testimony.
Boeing said any suggestions of a link between Pierson’s concerns and the Max accidents are “completely unfounded.”
But DeFazio said Pierson’s account and those of others have helped how the company’s safety culture has been “significantly eroded” and how government will have to step up and apply more scrutiny.
“We’re looking at a process that’s broken,” DeFazio said in an interview. “We can no longer trust Boeing.”
Pierson, a former Navy officer, said he raised concerns about the pace at Boeing’s Renton, Wash., factory. Pierson said he told a more senior manager that if they were facing similar safety problems in the military, they would have stopped work.
“The military’s not a profit-making organization,” Pierson said he was told.
Lawrence said the agency has an investigation ongoing into the Renton factory. He said production workers have been interviewed and that quality records had been reviewed, but provided few details. “They’re ongoing investigations,” he said.
Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) expressed frustration at the lack of information officials shared.
“Honestly it would be great if you had some specifics,” he said.
Meadows quickly followed up, pressing Dickson to commit that the agency’s investigators would interview at least 10 line workers at the facility and report back to the committee. Dickson agreed.