Maria Cantwell, Washington’s junior U.S. senator and longtime Boeing advocate, criticized Friday a government advisory committee’s findings this week that largely endorsed how the Federal Aviation Administration oversaw the certification of the 737 MAX, saying it “defends a system that is in clear need of improvement.”
That report concluded that federal regulators followed established procedures when they certified the Boeing 737 MAX and did not delegate too much safety oversight for the plane to the airplane manufacturer itself.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Cantwell wrote that the special committee’s report “falls short” and contradicts findings and recommendations for safety improvements that have been made by other review panels.
“While I believe the report makes some important recommendations to improve aviation safety, including mandating safety management systems for manufacturers and increasing the Federal Aviation Administration’s workforce capabilities, I believe the report falls short in its review of the FAA’s certification process,” according to the letter from Cantwell, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “Instead, it defends a system that is in clear need of improvement.”
The special committee to review the FAA’s certification process was appointed by Chao in April — the month after the second 737 MAX crashed within five months. The crashes, in Indonesia in October 2018, and in Ethiopia last March, killed 346 people and led to the plane’s worldwide grounding, which remains ongoing.
Overall, the committee gave high marks to the FAA’s certification process, finding it safe and effective. The conclusions differ sharply from those of legislators now investigating Boeing and the FAA.
Cantwell’s criticism joins that of at least two key House lawmakers who’ve said they plan to seek legislative reforms to the FAA’s certification process. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Rick Larsen, an Everett Democrat who chairs the House panel’s aviation subcommittee, each criticized the report’s findings in statements this week.
“Our Committee’s investigation has already revealed multiple junctures at which the current certification process failed, and as I’ve made clear, I intend to propose legislative fixes to ensure safety always comes first,” DeFazio said.
Larsen noted other multiple reviews make it clear that “the method by which the FAA certifies aircraft is itself in need of repair.”
“As I said in last month’s 737 MAX hearing, the FAA must fix its credibility problem,” Larsen added in his statement.
Like Larsen, Cantwell is a longtime Boeing advocate who supported the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that changed the certification process to allow for more delegation of regulatory oversight to Boeing and other manufacturers.
Boeing employees collectively contributed nearly $62,000 to her reelection bids since 2015, according to opensecrets.org. A spokeswoman said Cantwell doesn’t take money from corporate political action committees.
Cantwell wrote a key amendment that gave Boeing and other companies authority for approving anything deemed a “low and medium risk” during airplane certification. Boeing lobbied for and helped craft the legislation, according to an October 2019 report in The New York Times.
But Cantwell’s letter this week, which cites multiple expert reviews that “identify shortcomings” with the FAA’s certification process, indicates her position has changed.
“These problems include a delegation system with limited FAA involvement in the certification of some safety-critical systems, along with evidence of ‘undue pressure’ on employees of manufacturers and a failure to identify risks,” her letter to Chao states.