Federal Aviation Administration chief Steve Dickson defended his agency’s direction at a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday against criticism that it’s been too slow to implement aviation safety reforms and fix its oversight of Boeing.
He also rejected suggestions from a few Republican senators that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate ordered by President Biden has caused the recent rash of U.S. flight cancellations and threatens to destabilize the country’s aviation system.
Most of the questioning, led by Senate Commerce Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., focused on the reforms to the process for certifying new airplanes, enacted late last year in response to the two deadly crashes of Boeing 737 MAX jets.
“We believe there’s … more to be done on the oversight and certification process,” Cantwell told Dickson. “All of these safety issues are critical to all of us in America. It’s critical to our families who fly on planes. It’s critical to our economy. We need the leadership of the FAA.”
In response, Dickson insisted Boeing is now under intense scrutiny and that critical certification work, particularly for systems that require analysis of pilot reactions to malfunctions, is no longer delegated to the manufacturer.
“We have put more engineers on the shop floor in their factories. We have put more inspectors. We have put more rigorous oversight on them,” Dickson said. “We have also restricted what is delegated … Any critical safety system, we have retained.”
He added that the FAA is still issuing an airworthiness certificate for each individual 737 MAX that Boeing delivers to a customer today.
“Boeing is not the same as it was two years ago. But they have more work to do,” he concluded. “We are on the path that we need to be but it requires continuous vigilance and attention.”
Dickson faced an array of dissatisfied Senators who cycled in and out of the hearing room between votes.
Though Cantwell was aggressive in her grilling of Dickson, she began by acknowledging actions taken this year by the manager of the FAA’s aviation safety office in Seattle, Ian Won.
She cited with approval how Won in May denied Boeing permission to move forward with a key step in certifying its forthcoming 777X airplane until it provides more data and testing.
She also praised Won’s August letter informing Boeing that an investigation had found a substantial number of engineers who do certification work for the FAA are concerned about management pressure and that the FAA would therefore conduct an independent survey of all such engineers.
“We need the FAA … to be that gold standard,” Cantwell said.
Despite that newly tough FAA line with Boeing, she went on to criticize how slowly some elements of the reform legislation passed last December are progressing.
She said her committee has been told “by various whistleblowers” that the culture inside the FAA remains too cozy with Boeing.
Cantwell asked why rules are not yet in place to reform the way new versions of older aircraft models are allowed to be certified with less scrutiny, even though they might be significantly changed from the original model — an issue highlighted by the 737 MAX investigations.
Dickson said the FAA has commissioned an outside contractor, the not-for-profit Mitre Corp., to examine the criteria used for such decisions, and has convened a working group of international regulators to harmonize the rules.
Other senators widened the critique beyond oversight of Boeing.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., raised a Department of Transportation Inspector General Report this month that found lacking the FAA’s inspections of airplane maintenance at American Airlines.
Dickson accepted that criticism and said the agency is working to provide “professional development of our inspectors.”
Some Republican senators asked about the politically charged issue of the federal vaccine mandates.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggested that protests against the mandates likely caused the large number of flight cancellations this month, first at Southwest and then last weekend at American.
Dickson denied any connection.
“Senator, I’ve spoken with the air carriers and with several of the pilot union leaders, as well as our own leaders within the agency, and at this point in time, I’m not seeing any staffing impact from the vaccine mandate,” he said.
He attributed the operational problems to a combination of bad weather and a staff shortage as airlines were surprised by the latest increase in demand.
The airlines “probably don’t have as much buffer in their schedules as they had previously or as they would like,” he said. “All of the algorithms that they use to plan their schedules were disrupted.”
And he said the downtime at the FAA air traffic control center in Jacksonville that contributed to the Southwest cancellations was due to “convective weather and extensive military activity. So it did create a choke point, but it was not any kind of organized activity or sick out.”
As for the vaccine mandate deadline for his own staff, including the nation’s air traffic controllers, Dickson said “we’re focused on complying with the executive order by Nov. 22.”
And though he said he does not have an accurate count of the current FAA staff vaccination rate, he added, “I do not expect to lose a significant portion of our workforce.”
“We have robust contingency plans in place,” Dickson said. “At this point in time, I’m not seeing any impact on safety and we will work to make sure that the airspace is open and available for the traveling public.”