A proposed bill to tighten controls on how federal aviation safety regulators oversee and approve Boeing’s design of new jets has been hammered out by a Senate committee after backroom negotiations and a pressure campaign by families of the 346 people who died in two crashes of the 737 MAX.
If passed, the bill would reverse the years-long trend of delegating more and more control of the process to Boeing itself, and would shift the balance of oversight responsibility back toward the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“We’re pleased,” said Michael Stumo, the father of 24-year-old Samya Stumo, who died in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March last year and whose extended family has campaigned for accountability ever since. “This is the baseline for going forward. This is real.”
In recent days the bill has grown new teeth that were absent from an initial draft circulated last week by Committee Chairman U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. That early version called for a two-year study of ways to improve the system, but mandated no specific changes.
The strengthening of the bill follows intense negotiations with the committee’s ranking minority member, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and a concerted lobbying campaign by the families of the crash victims.
For Cantwell, it was a role reversal.
A longtime champion of Boeing and the jobs it brings to Washington state, she wrote an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that eliminated the few remaining barriers to delegating most of the certification work to Boeing.
While the MAX was certified before that act became law, the two crashes that occurred within five months of its signing have changed the congressional calculus.
In negotiations with the Republicans on the committee over the past week, Cantwell insisted that if Wicker wanted his bill to be bipartisan, certification would have to move in the opposite direction, putting limits and controls on Boeing’s role in certifying its own airplanes.
Cantwell said she focused on “making sure the FAA’s oversight is strong, clear and transparent.”
The families of the crash victims mobilized for the same goal.
After Wicker’s initial draft bill was posted on a WhatsApp group chat for the families last week, participants sent a flood of passionate emails to 59 members of the Commerce Committee staff.
The brother of 29-year-old Kenyan electrical engineer George Kabau, who died in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019, wrote that the Senate staffers should fulfill their “duty of safeguarding the future safety of the flying public, not just for Americans, but for the entire world by proposing and endorsing adequate legislative interventions.”
Javier de Luis, brother of 63-year-old Graziella de Luis, a United Nations translator from Mexico who also died on that flight, wrote that as an MIT-trained aerospace engineer familiar with certification failures, he thought the initial draft bill “does nothing to address the systemic failures that led to my sister’s death.”
And the family of 39-year-old Irishman Micheál (Mick) Ryan, a deputy chief engineer for the U.N. World Food Programme who was on the Ethiopian flight, wrote that in Ireland and across Europe “there is a lack of trust now regarding the FAA.”
“A ‘do-nothing’ law will not help rebuild this trust,” they wrote.
Samya Stumo’s mother, Nadia Milleron, interviewed with her husband Thursday night, said the emails must have struck a chord with Wicker’s staffers.
“They knew they couldn’t go forward with a Boeing Protection Act. That they would look terrible,” she said. “That’s why they rewrote it.”
Policing the delegation of oversight
The draft bill would restructure the organization within Boeing of company engineers who work on behalf of the FAA and are tasked with testing and approving the design of a new airplane.
Those engineers today are appointed by Boeing. According to a copy of the bill obtained by The Seattle Times, it requires that they be appointed by and approved by the FAA.
Those engineers today are supervised by Boeing managers and discouraged from talking directly to their FAA technical counterparts. The bill requires that the FAA regularly audit their performance and that they communicate routinely with an FAA technical advisor, typically a government safety engineer or inspector.
In addition, no FAA employee can be offered any kind of financial incentive for performance “related to meeting schedules.” And neither FAA nor Boeing management can prohibit the technical staff on either side from communicating freely with each other.
“The lines of communication and authority between all aviation manufacturers and the FAA need important improvements,” said Cantwell. “Strong technical aviation expertise on the ground cannot simply be ignored by senior management at the FAA.”
These provisions in the bill spring directly from revelations that during certification of the MAX, managers at both the FAA and at Boeing put “undue pressure” on technical staff to push through approvals quickly.
The changes amount to reverting back to an older version of the oversight system when the Boeing engineers who worked as “authorized representatives” of the FAA had more independence from company managers.
Another item addressed in the bill is that current law allows the FAA to designate certain companies as able to completely self-certify their own aircraft designs and production processes, sometimes referred to as “delegation on steroids.”
While this isn’t the norm today, it has been pushed as a vision for the future by aerospace industry lobbyists and FAA leadership to speed the regulatory process and get government out of the way of industry. The bill specifically repeals that provision, blocking the further extension of oversight delegation in future.
“They are taking that out, so the FAA can never go down that road,” said Stumo.
The bill also includes explicit protection for whistleblowers who come forward with safety concerns, not only at a manufacturer like Boeing but at its suppliers and subcontractors.
And to bolster the FAA’s oversight capabilities, it authorizes an extra $10 million per year for the agency to hire “specialized technical personnel with expertise in new and emerging technologies.”
Stumo said the families will continue to push to strengthen the bill further.
They want an explicit provision that all critical airplane systems — such as the flight control system that brought down the two MAXs, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — must be approved directly by the FAA, not Boeing.
And they want some kind of sunset clause when an airplane is approved with a so-called Type Certificate, so that derivative models designed much later — perhaps 20 years after the original — must go through an entirely new certification process.
The FAA approved the MAX as a derivative of the original 737 that was certified 50 years earlier, a curtailed certification process that meant it didn’t have to meet all the latest safety regulations.
Stumo said he’s hopeful that when the Senate and the House of Representatives work out a final bill, “those improvements could be agreed to.”
The proposed Senate bill is still pending final agreement between Republicans and Democrats and there could be last-minute changes. It will be discussed at a Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday, at which FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson will testify.