Senators ripped into Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Stephen Dickson at a public hearing Wednesday for failing to adequately answer their questions about the agency’s oversight of Boeing during certification of its 737 MAX.
At a crucial moment for Boeing, as it works toward winning FAA clearance to return the MAX to service this fall, members of the Senate Commerce Committee also questioned whether Dickson has adequately addressed mistakes made when the MAX was first certified, and sought guarantees that the updated model will be completely safe.
Dickson’s responses, almost a year after he took charge at the FAA, disappointed family members of the 346 people killed in the two MAX crashes.
“We were looking to Dickson to hold people accountable and to pioneer change,” said Zipporah Kuria, whose father, Joseph Kuria Waithaka, died in the Ethiopian crash last year. “I was completely appalled by the lack of answers. He seemed ill prepared. I have completely lost faith in the FAA.”
Dickson reiterated previous assurances that the FAA is not facing a deadline to clear the MAX to fly again, and that it will only do so when “safety issues have been addressed and pilots have the training they need.”
Yet he faced skepticism as the senators demanded accountability for the crashes.
Pressed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R – Texas, Dickson admitted that during the original certification of the MAX, Boeing “made mistakes and the FAA made mistakes in its oversight.”
During both MAX crashes, a new flight control system — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — forced the planes down as the pilots struggled against it for control.
“The full implications of the flight-control system were not understood as changes were made,” Dickson said.
Cruz forced Dickson to concede that no one at the FAA has been fired or even disciplined for mistakes in the certification process.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the committee’s ranking minority member, said that after multiple reports about the MAX crashes, the FAA response “has seemed more a rigid acceptance of the status quo than the needed changes we want to see at the FAA.”
Seattle Times reports last year revealed that Boeing managers limited some certification testing performed by the company’s own engineers; that FAA safety engineers were pressured to give cursory approvals to Boeing analyses; and that changes to MCAS made late in the program’s development went largely under the FAA’s radar.
Cantwell and committee chair Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., highlighted parts of the bill they introduced Tuesday for “Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform” that, if enacted, will tighten controls on how the FAA oversees and approve Boeing’s design of new jets.
Cantwell said the aviation safety system clearly needs to be fixed, with the goal of “restoring America’s leadership in aviation safety.”
“We can’t have planes certified and after certification have them grounded because of unsafe conditions,” she said.
Cantwell said her bill will roll back the long trend of giving Boeing increasing control of the certification of its own jets and will “make sure the FAA stays in the driver’s seat.”
“Our bill will end any semblance of self-certification,” she said.
Yet Dickson did not give the bill his enthusiastic backing.
Cantwell expressed surprise when Dickson failed to endorse a requirement that the FAA rather than Boeing select and appoint the company engineers who will represent the agency during the certification process. That change is “not something I believe would add to the safety of the process,” Dickson said.
Lack of transparency
Wicker opened the hearing by listing how the FAA has failed to respond to requests for information. To investigate whistleblower allegations, for example, the committee’s investigators had asked for copies of internal email discussions.
He said that even after a personal plea to Dickson within the last week for answers to specific questions and access to specific internal documents, no progress was made.
“This record of delay and unresponsiveness clearly shows at best an unwillingness to cooperate with congressional oversight,” Wicker said. “Your team at the FAA has deliberately tried to keep us in the dark.”
“It’s hard not to characterize our relationship during this entire process as being adversarial on the part of the FAA,” he added. “The agency stonewalling of my investigation suggests discomfort for what might ultimately be revealed.”
At one point Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D – Conn., told Dickson: “I see no way you can continue in this job if you fail to be more responsive.”
Throughout the harsh questioning, Dickson emphasized one change the FAA has already agreed to, and which is also included in the proposed Senate legislation, that he sees as the crucial move to make aviation safe.
This is the introduction for manufacturers like Boeing of what’s called a Safety Management System (SMS), a formal risk-analysis and -mitigation process already in place at all U.S. airlines.
This concept, abstract and buried beneath the blurry language of corporate management, requires a company to put in place a structured, integrated process to manage all aspects of safety as a top priority.
The idea is to create a “culture of safety” from the top down.
And while many veterans of Boeing would say that the company historically had such a culture — one that’s been lost in recent years with the focus on finances and the share price — the introduction of a formal SMS that will be regularly audited by the FAA is supposed to ensure accountability.
Dickson said Boeing has already voluntarily implemented some aspects of an SMS internally.
“We have seen a culture shift in some areas,” he said. “But there is more work to be done.”
Dickson said that the FAA has taken so long to re-certify the MAX — 15 months so far, and counting — because the redesign of the airplane is not limited to fixing the flaws in MCAS.
Instead, the entire flight-control system has been redesigned, replacing the original system architecture, which used only one flight-control computer on any given flight, with a more robust dual computer system that compares the signals on each side to ensure redundancy.
This is a complex task since many of the jet’s systems are interdependent, so the FAA is conducting its own audit of every system.
“That’s why this is such a journey,” Dickson said.
However, Javier de Luis, whose sister Graziella de Luis died in the Ethiopian crash and who has a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from MIT, said in an interview he doesn’t think even this complex fix is good enough.
He said the ancient avionics systems on the 737 remain a problem, because a dual computer architecture doesn’t allow the system to know which computer is right if they disagree.
“If they were to put a modern avionics system into this aircraft with a modern set of sensors and redundancies, then, yes, it can be made safe,” de Luis said. “I don’t have a lot of confidence the current path we are on will get us there.”
Reaction from victims’ families
After days of pressing to be added to the witness roster, Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samya died in last year’s MAX crash in Ethiopia, also testified, criticizing the FAA for not grounding the jet after the first crash.
“The first crash should not have happened,” Stumo said. “The second crash is inexcusable.”
He said the bill proposed by Wicker and Cantwell is important as a first step, but that the families who lost loved ones in the crashes want further improvements.
He called for assurances that oversight of all flight-critical systems cannot be delegated to Boeing but must be conducted directly by the FAA.
And he asked for time limits on aircraft certification, so that derivatives of an aging plane design cannot continue to be produced under the same certificate after more than 25 years.
The MAX is a derivative of Boeing’s original 50-year-old 737 design.
“At some point, you gotta innovate and make a new plane,” Stumo said.
Again, this is a detail Dickson wouldn’t endorse as a means of improving the safety of derivative models.
“Whether time limits is the most effective way to deal with that remains to be seen,” he said.
Stumo also called for Boeing to drop a defense its lawyers are using in court, where they have argued that the company should be immune from liability for the crashes because the FAA certified the MAX.
In an interview from her home in England, Kuria said she was disgusted to learn of this legal argument during the hearing.
“I was completely stunned by the audacity of Boeing to ask for immunity,” she said. “I felt that it was a form of admission of wrongdoing. Because what do you need immunity for if you are innocent?”
When Sen. Ed Markey, D -Mass.,raised the issue with Dickson, the FAA chief agreed that “the responsibility to produce a safe product does belong with Boeing.”
In a press conference conducted over Zoom after the hearing, family members of the crash victims expressed a deep distrust of Boeing and a reluctance to accept the MAX returning to the skies.
Speaking from her home in India, Shikha Bassi, aunt of Bhavye Suneja, the pilot who died while in command of Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018, said the accidents have produced “a complete loss of faith” in both Boeing and the FAA that is a barrier to returning the MAX to service.
“How does one revive that trust?” she asked.
“A huge amount of money is involved. There are so many MAX aircraft just lying all around. We understand,” Bassi said. “But there won’t be a shortcut. How does the world believe that?”
The pilot’s mother, Sangeeta Suneja, then interjected: Boeing leaders “have never once accepted that they have done wrong. They are still living in denial and wanting to push this airplane,” she said, “It just cannot happen.”