FAA Faces Scrutiny and No Concrete Timeline for Return of Boeing 737 MAX

An emotionally charged House Aviation Subcommittee safety hearing on July 17 featured testimony from  Paul Njoroge and Michael Stumo, family members of victims in the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crash, who called for significant change.

Unlike the two other House T&I hearings on the 737 MAX issue – the May hearing featuring testimony from the FAA and the National Transpiration Safety Board (NTSB), and the June hearing featuring testimony from airlines as well as unions, this new hearing featured a first panel of the families of victims, followed by an almost-all-union second panel, ensuring a more critical take on both the FAA and Boeing.

Njoroge insisted that simulator training be required for all pilots before ungrounding the new Boeing 737 MAX 8, along with recertification.  He called attention to Boeing’s lack of action following the Lion Air flight 610 crash several months prior to Ethiopian Airlines.  “Boeing used this fallacy of foreign pilot error to avoid the grounding of the 737 MAX… that decision killed my family and 152 others,” said Njoroge.  He later added “…if Boeing’s wrongful conduct continues, another plane will dive to the ground killing me, you, your children, or other members of your family.”  Njoroge and Stumo had a number of other recommendations, among which was transitioning from an organization designation authorization (ODA) program to utilizing designated engineering representatives (DERs) who would report directly to the FAA.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Sam Graves (R-LA) directly promised Njoroge that the subcommittee would not allow the previous certification process to unground the Boeing 737 MAX, which seems to indicate a future process with more FAA input.

There was general consensus among both panels that the FAA is failing to provide the correct oversight; whether the issue is certification, maintenance, or general safety culture, witnesses agreed it was not involved enough. This also comes as the full Senate is scheduled to debate the contentious nomination of Steve Dickson to be FAA Administrator next week.

Head of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), John Samuelsen, was especially adamant about the FAA’s failure to properly oversee foreign maintenance stations while allowing airlines to increasingly outsource work.  Samuelsen repeatedly stressed the low quality work of stations in China and around South America. He said the FAA does not hold foreign maintenance stations to the same standards, foregoing background checks for workers and allowing lower levels of certification – or none at all.  This is magnified by the inability of the FAA to conduct unannounced safety checks at these foreign stations.

Samuelsen highlighted the lower standards with an account from engineers who found “vital engine components held together with duct tape” after a plane returned to U.S. soil.  He strongly advised a moratorium on certification of additional foreign maintenance stations, which currently number 900 and receive nearly 30 percent of work from major airlines, until such oversight issues are solved.

(Ed. Note: The reliability of foreign repair stations has been a top priority of new T&I Committee chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) for the last several FAA reauthorization bill cycles.)

Dana Schulze, of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and Captain Joe DePete, Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), raised other concerns about safety requirements for private and cargo aircrafts. Schulze said that the NTSB requested that the FAA require flight data monitoring programs and safety management systems on aircrafts operating under part 135; she also requested a crash protected cockpit recording system for part 135 and part 121 aircrafts.

DePete highlighted the improved safety of commercial flights since reforms following the Colgan 3407 crash, which implemented longer rest times and require two pilots on board.  He urged that the same requirements be issued for cargo planes which he compared to semi-truck conditions. DePete also asked that policy move quickly regarding identification for drones; he stressed that they are a significant danger as long as they are moving through public airspace without being tracked.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) presented concerns about shrinking seat sizes on commercial flights.  APFA head, Lori Bassani, said that packing in customers is making it impossible to meet FAA requirements on evacuation procedures and asked that such practices be reevaluated. Bassani brought up another issue involving problems with toxic fumes on flights. More than 1,500 reports were filed in 2018 by flight attendants complaining of these fumes while working and one flight made an emergency landing due to passengers and workers becoming sick. Bassani asked for detection systems to be installed to counteract future problems.

Dana Schulze, acting head of the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety, made a point of emphasizing that “For the last decade, the US aviation system has experienced a record level of safety, and the number of US-registered civil aviation accidents has declined overall.” Her testimony also listed the NTSB’s longstanding list of “most wanted” safety reforms, which the NTSB produces without regard to the economic cost of the reforms.

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