Steve Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), on Thursday acknowledged to his agency’s staff that there is “a lot of pressure” to fast-track the Boeing 737 MAX’s return to the air. But he instructed FAA technical employees assessing the MAX’s revised flight-control software to take all the time required to ensure complete safety.
“I’ve got your back,” he told them.
The clear message was that Boeing will not control the timetable for getting clearance to fly the MAX again, despite repeated declarations by the company that it expects the go-ahead by year-end.
And on Friday, Congress added to the pressure on Boeing by demanding answers to a series of supplementary questions based on testimony at an Oct. 30 public hearing about how the MAX was originally designed, and what and when the company knew about “potentially catastrophic” vulnerabilities.
Dickson’s message was delivered in a video distributed as a “Straight from Steve” message to FAA employees on Thursday.
“I know there is a lot of pressure to return this aircraft to service quickly,” Dickson said. “But I want you to know that I want you to take the time you need, and focus solely on safety.”
“I support what you are doing to scrutinize this aircraft carefully,” he said. “I’ll support the time that you need to conduct a thorough, deliberate process for a safe return to service.”
“I am not going to sign off on this aircraft until I fly it myself and am satisfied I would put my own family on it without a second thought,” Dickson added. “The only driving force is safety and the FAA fully controls the approval process.”
The message came just three days after Boeing issued an update on progress that said it “continues to target FAA certification of the MAX flight-control software updates during this quarter” and that “it is possible that the resumption of MAX deliveries to airline customers could begin in December.”
Boeing’s message was seen as an attempt to reassure investors that the MAX was still on track for a return soon, despite a rocky appearance the previous week by CEO Dennis Muilenburg in a televised Congressional hearing where House representatives brought up new evidence that Boeing missed flaws in the original design of the jet’s flight-control system.
The jet has been grounded for eight months after two crashes killed 346 people. The FAA’s role has come under intense scrutiny, with some technical staff accusing FAA managers of applying “undue pressure” to rubber-stamp Boeing’s original design of the plane’s systems.
According to one FAA safety expert, Dickson’s message came after some technical staff raised objections when they were pressed by managers to start testing Boeing’s revised software before it was final.
In addition to the video, Dickson the same day sent a memo to Ali Bahrami, the agency’s associate administrator for aviation safety, directing that his staff should continue “to adhere to a data-driven, methodical” approach to analyzing and testing Boeing’s fix for the MAX.
“Your team should take whatever time is needed to do that work. I am committed to backing you up on all this,” Dickson wrote. “I stand with you and your team in continuing to move at the pace of safety.”
In a statement Friday, Boeing said “the FAA and other regulatory authorities will determine the timing of certification and return to commercial service.”
Congress turns the screw
Dickson’s message to staff may also have been partly in response to Congressional criticism that his agency is too cozy with Boeing.
Last week, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, sent Dickson a letter expressing concern about how FAA management overruled the FAA’s own technical specialists on two potentially catastrophic safety issues — related to rudder cables on the 737 MAX and lightning protection on the 787 Dreamliner — after Boeing objected.
On Friday, DeFazio, who led Muilenburg’s grilling at the Oct. 30 hearing, turned his attention back to Boeing and sent the CEO a series of written follow-up questions.
Among other questions, DeFazio demanded to know why, immediately after the Lion Air crash, when Boeing warned pilots about a malfunction that might automatically push the nose of the aircraft down, it failed to name the flight-control system that had caused this on the crash flight — as if Boeing were loath to reveal a system it had not previously informed pilots about.
Boeing told airlines about the new software, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), only five days later.
DeFazio also asked for an explanation of Muilenburg’s initial resistance to the grounding of the MAX in the first days after the second crash, in Ethiopia.
And in a question clearly based on internal Boeing engineering memos that were presented at the hearing, DeFazio also asked what the company knew after the first crash about how a malfunctioning sensor interacting with MCAS on the MAX could pose a “potentially catastrophic risk.”
With regard to this specific risk, DeFazio asks Muilenburg, “What new information did Boeing learn only after the October 2018 Lion Air accident, that it didn’t already know previously?” and then reiterates exactly the same question with regard to the March 2019 Ethiopian Airlines accident.
In pointed language, DeFazio also questioned why the aging 737 design — the 737 first flew in 1967 — is still in operation through 13 amendments to its original certification.
“When will Boeing decide the 737 has had its day and that it’s time to develop an entirely new single-aisle airplane?” DeFazio asked Muilenburg.
The continuing congressional interrogation ensures that the pressure on Boeing will not ease, even as the FAA declares its determination to resist any pressure from Boeing or the industry.