Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was grilled at a budget hearing Wednesday on her oversight of aviation safety, as multiple inquiries continue into two crashes of Boeing 737 Max planes.
Citing a Trump administration proposal last month to cut $9 million from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aviation Safety organization and tens of millions of dollars from automobile safety programs, Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) said the Transportation Department’s budget request “doesn’t reflect the rhetoric we hear from the department about taking a safety-first approach.”
A Chao spokesman later disputed Price’s characterization of the aviation safety figures.
Price, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, also raised questions about the federal government’s certification process for the 737 Max, which was involved in two crashes within five months — one in Indonesia and a second in Ethiopia — killing a total of 346 people.
Those questions rest both with acting FAA administrator Daniel K. Elwell, and at Chao’s level, Price said.
After years of advocacy by Boeing and actions by Congress, the FAA has given the company a far-reaching role in overseeing its own compliance with federal safety standards. The certification system is known as the Organization Designation Authorization program, or ODA.
Proponents of the system have said that the FAA was understaffed and too slow to issue approvals, and argue that the ODA system tapped industry expertise in the highly technical realm. Critics inside and outside the FAA have raised concerns about the dangers of eroding independent oversight.
Chao said she had been anticipating questions about the program and emphasized that “it’s not a self-certification process.”
“This form of delegation has been part of the FAA since it was formed in 1958 and allows the FAA to focus on safety-critical issues,” Chao told the panel. She noted that the FAA sets safety standards and “is involved when new, novel and high-risk design features are contemplated.”
“Having said all of that, we always need to improve,” Chao added. “The FAA itself acknowledges that they need to improve. And we all have to learn.”
Chao said a special committee she set up to examine certification issues, and an audit by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General “will also address these questions.”
Price raised a broad range of questions about the program, saying, “No it’s not self-certification. But it clearly, clearly is a process that requires a certain FAA capacity . . . certain trained personnel. It requires vigorous oversight. It requires discerning judgment about what’s delegated and what isn’t, what is done in house.
“And it requires critical judgment about how this is working right now — and the extent to which aircraft are not being subject to the most thoroughgoing kind of examination, even when there are major new components in the planes,” Price said.
And beneath all of that, Price asked, “Are there potentials for conflicts of interest, with respect to industry’s role here? Are there possibilities that employees will be subject to pressures in carrying out this role? Many, many questions, which are, I would suggest, at the administrator’s level and at the secretary’s level.”
Chao responded, “These questions have been discussed, and we obviously don’t have answers. I think we need to see what exactly — and I’m not here to defend anybody, no — I’m concerned about safety. That is the number one concern that I have. We want to get to the — we want to get answers. We want to understand fully what happened, and how do we prevent it from happening again.”
Price also pushed Chao on why the FAA had been the last major civil aviation safety agency to ground the 737 Max aircraft.
Chao noted that the FAA “is independent. It is a very technical organization. It’s data-driven.” FAA officials did not believe they had the needed evidence until they saw new satellite data and learned of physical evidence found at the Ethiopian crash site, she said.
“The more basic issue is, if we cannot specify how these planes were grounded — what were the reasons for grounding these 737 Max [planes]? — what would be the reason for un-grounding them?” Chao said.
Chao did not address the concerns raised by Price and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) about proposed safety-related cuts, including to the FAA’s Aviation Safety organization, which is responsible for the certification of aircraft and pilots, developing regulations and other duties.
A Transportation Department spokesman said it was inaccurate to say the department was seeking cuts to Aviation Safety, since the 2020 budget proposal was drafted before the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill was enacted in February.
“The fiscal year ’19 appropriation didn’t exist when the budget was drafted,” spokesman Stephen Bradford said. “At the time the budget was drafted, it represented a $17 million plus-up from the most recent appropriation,” which was for fiscal year 2018, he said.
The budget for Aviation Safety, or AVS, was $1.310 billion in 2018; $1.337 billion in 2019; and $1.328 billion in the Trump administration’s proposal for 2020.
The office has responsibility over eight broad areas: flight safety standards and inspections; aircraft certification; accident investigation and prevention; air traffic safety oversight; rulemaking; aerospace medicine; unmanned aircraft systems integration; and a division that includes management support, planning and other services.
Its approximately 7,200 employees certify planes, pilots, mechanics and others, conduct oversight over the aviation industry broadly, and set safety standards “for every product, person, and organization that manufactures and operates aircraft” in the United States, according to an administration budget document.
In addition to investigators and auditors from the Office of Inspector General, the Justice Department’s criminal division is looking into the Boeing 737 Max. The House Transportation Committee has launched an investigation, as has the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The Commerce Committee said it has received information from whistleblowers raising questions about whether a “potential lack of training and certification” among inspectors “may have led to an improper evaluation” of an automated feature that investigators say was a factor in last month’s crash in Ethiopia and the Oct. 29 crash in Indonesia.
Among the issues is whether those inspectors participated in an FAA Flight Standardization Board that was set up “to develop minimum training recommendations” for the plane and whether a lack of training would have affected their analysis. “This raises the question of whether a specific reference to the MCAS system should have been included” in the board’s report.
MCAS is the acronym for an anti-stall feature known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.
The multiple inquiries are seeking to determine how Boeing and the FAA came to certify the Max planes were safe, despite problems that have now been acknowledged about the aggressiveness of the MCAS system, which repeatedly pointed the nose of the planes down in the two crashes.
Also at issue is how Boeing and the FAA allowed training for pilots to fall short on 737 Max planes with the automated feature.
Boeing is working on software fixes, and Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has called on the FAA to bring in third-party experts to examine the changes and help provide confidence they will be good enough.
To address such concerns, the FAA created an international technical review team chaired by former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart. NASA will take part. Representatives from civil aviation authorities in Ethiopia, Indonesia, the European Union, Brazil, Canada, China and Singapore have also been invited to participate.
Chao said Elwell was in Singapore on Wednesday explaining the FAA’s approach. He is at the World Civil Aviation Chief Executives Forum at the Singapore Aviation Academy.
“We both invite and welcome scrutiny as a necessary element of continuous improvement. Our recent and planned outreach efforts are a demonstration of this commitment to enhance the safety of the flying public,” an FAA spokesman said.
Chao’s “special committee” looking into the certification of the 737 Max will be led, on an interim basis, by retired Air Force Gen. Darren W. McDew, former head of the U.S. Transportation Command, and Capt. Lee Moak, former president of the Air Line Pilots Association, according to the Department of Transportation.