Top Federal Aviation Administration officials defended how the agency delegated some safety certification to Boeing while the company pushed for approval of its 737 MAX airliner, during a Senate hearing Wednesday that examined whether the agency’s decisions contributed to two deadly airplane crashes.
“We have relied on the industry more than we should rely on the industry to do the job that we should do to make sure the American public is safe,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation said during the hearing, which was streamed online.
But Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s associate aviation safety administrator and a former “designee” reporting to the FAA while working in private industry, contended the agency’s delegation program is a key part of a safety and oversight system with “a proven, quantifiable safety record.”
“I was a designee of a company. I know what it is to be a designee,” Bahrami said. “It’s a badge of honor that once the greatest safety organization in the world tells you that you’re trusted to do work on my behalf … that is probably the highlight of an individual’s career. When we talk about delegation, delegation is sound.”
The subcommittee’s scrutiny of the FAA’s regulatory role comes amid fresh news reports detailing “instances in which FAA managers appear to be more concerned with Boeing’s production timeline rather than the safety recommendations of its own engineers,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the subcommittee’s chairwoman.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, questioned Bahrami about why FAA officials hadn’t disclosed more details in a directive for pilots issued last November that Boeing was planning a long-term flight-control software fix.
After the first MAX crash in October, the FAA issued the flight-directive warning MAX pilots about how to respond to the plane’s suspect flight-control system — called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS — should it show signs of “runaway” controls. At the same time, the FAA allowed Boeing to work confidentially on the longer-term software fix.
“The implication was that this pilot change would be sufficient to provide airworthiness; there was no real mention of improvements and necessary changes to the MCAS system, leading I think most people to conclude that there was no long-term issue with the MCAS,” Reed told Bahrami, referencing a new Wall Street Journal report about the matter. “That lack of transparency I think is not appropriate.”
Bahrami, who maintained the FAA was required under an agreement with the National Transportation Safety Board to keep certain information confidential while receiving real-time safety data from accident investigators, assured the committee the FAA’s actions were “normal practice” during an accident probe.
“We do not disclose information or any indication what may have gone wrong in that particular case, and that is a very delicate balance for us to play,” Bahrami said. “So, we wanted to basically resolve the issue without having to disclose information that investigators did not want us to disclose. And from the safety perspective, we felt strongly that what we did was adequate.”
The FAA’s role in certifying the MAX has drawn scrutiny in the wake of the Lion Air jet crash in October, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March. The accidents killed a combined 346 people. The FAA ordered the airplane grounded after the second crash amid various continuing investigations.
The FAA, citing lack of funding and resources, has over the years delegated increasing authority to Boeing to take on more of the work of certifying the safety of its own airplanes.
A Seattle Times investigation published in March showed that the safety analysis of the MCAS system that played a major role in both crashes was done entirely by Boeing.
The New York Times reported last week that FAA managers’ decisions partly were influenced by Boeing’s production timeline and budgetary needs.
While defending the delegation program Wednesday, Carl Burleson, the FAA’s acting deputy administrator, kept open the possibility for oversight system changes.
“The process of delegation is long standing and has been a critical part of producing the safety record that we have in the Unites States,” Burleson said. “I will say that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, it doesn’t mean that each decision we’ve made has always been perfect. But I do think the fundamental process of how we went about certifying the MAX was sound.”
The career of Bahrami, who fielded the brunt of questions from the subcommittee, illustrates how tightly intertwined the regulatory agency and industry has become.
After starting as a private engineer for Douglas Aircraft, he rose through the FAA ranks, from an engineer to manager of the agency’s Renton-based Transport Airplane Directorate, which oversees safety of the U.S. commercial-aircraft fleet and certification of new airplane models.
In 2013, after shepherding the 787 Dreamliner through certification, Bahrami left the FAA for an executive job with the private Aerospace Industries Association. Four years later, he returned to the FAA as one of its top executives, helping to oversee safety programs for the agency with a $1.3 billion budget and 7,200 employees.
“Is it your testimony that pressure from the manufacturers to meet its deadlines for production has no impact at all on the decisions that you make with regard to safety,” Collins asked Bahrami.
“When it comes to safety — absolutely safety is number 1,” he said. “That’s what we focus on.”