Senators of both parties lashed out at the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday, accusing it of stonewalling their attempts to understand how the agency approved a Boeing jet that later suffered two deadly crashes and whether it retaliates against whistleblowers in its ranks.
Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the FAA has failed to respond to more than half of his committee's requests for documents, some of them made more than a year ago. He said the agency hasn't turned over anything since April.
Wicker said he holds Stephen Dickson, President Donald Trump's pick to lead the FAA, personally responsible for creating an adversarial relationship with Congress.
“It is hard not to conclude your team at the FAA has deliberately attempted to keep us in the dark,” Wicker told Dickson during a committee hearing.
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Dickson disputed Wicker's description of the FAA, but he promised “to redouble our efforts” to cooperate with Congress.
Hours later, the FAA said it has given Wicker’s committee 7,400 pages of documents and responded to many of his questions but couldn’t answer others because that could interfere with ongoing investigations by several federal agencies.
The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington — where Chicago-based Boeing builds the long-grounded 737 Max — joined Wicker in criticizing FAA's failure to turn over documents. Other Democrats accused FAA of having a culture of secrecy.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked Dickson whether Boeing lied to the FAA about safety concerns around the Boeing plane. Dickson avoided answering directly but agreed that the certification process didn't work perfectly.
“The manufacturer made mistakes, and the FAA made mistakes in its oversight of the manufacturer,” Dickson said.
When Cruz pressed the matter, Dickson said no FAA employees have been fired or disciplined because of those mistakes.
This week, Wicker and Cantwell introduced legislation to revamp the FAA's process for certifying new passenger planes. The bill would not eliminate the FAA's decades-long policy of relying on employees of aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing to test and analyze safety of key systems, but it would change it. For example, the bill would require the FAA — not the companies — to pick those insiders and monitor them more closely.
Dickson said changing who selects company insiders to do safety work “is not something that I believe would add to the safety of the process.” He noted that so-called designees already must meet FAA qualifications and are overseen by FAA inspectors. “It is a trust but verify system,” he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., fired back, “The FAA has to do the work, not just oversee it.”
The FAA lets about 80 manufacturers use their own engineers to certify safety of their planes.
FAA officials and some lawmakers say that practice is necessary and even beneficial because of the expertise of the insiders and FAA's limited budget. Last year, FAA's leader at the time estimated it would cost nearly $2 billion a year for FAA to perform all the work now done by manufacturers.
However, the “organization designation authorization” program, or ODA, was heavily criticized after it was disclosed that FAA officials had little understanding of a key flight-control system on the Boeing Max that has been implicated in crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The system, called MCAS, sent the planes into nose dives based on faulty sensor readings.
The 346 people killed in those crashes combined came from many countries, including the United States.
After the first crash, in October 2018, Boeing set out to fix flight-control software on the plane, and FAA allowed other Max jets to keep flying. The Ethiopian crash occurred five months later.
“The first crash should not have happened. The second crash is inexcusable,” said Michael Stumo, whose daughter died in the second crash. “They gambled, we lost.”
The Max has been grounded worldwide since March 2019. Boeing hopes to win FAA approval this year for changes it is making to the plane so airlines can resume using it. Some relatives of the victims believe the plane has aerodynamic flaws, and they want the FAA review to go beyond the flight-control software, which they view as a cheap fix by Boeing.
Dickson said, as he has many times, that FAA will approve Boeing's work when it is convinced the plane is safe.