Senators blast FAA ‘stonewalling’ 737 MAX investigation

Large bald man, the head of the FAA, speaks before congressional committee.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson on Wednesday acknowledged that the agency and Boeing (NYSE: BA) made mistakes in the development of the 737 MAX, and said he is committed to improving the certification process and that the plane must go through several more review steps before it can be recertified for commercial service.

During a hearing that got testy at times, members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee accused the FAA of “stonewalling” their investigation into two 737 MAX crashes, saying the agency has not cooperated with requests for documentation and interviews. 

“This record of delay and non-responsiveness clearly shows at best an unwillingness to cooperate in congressional oversight. It is hard not to conclude your team at the FAA has deliberately attempted to keep us in the dark. … It is hard not to characterize our relationship during this entire process as being adversarial on the part of the FAA,” Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said, adding he holds Dickson responsible for the failure to comply.

In opening remarks, the FAA chief said he “welcomes and recognizes the importance of scrutiny of our processes and procedures” and later told Wicker, “I believe it is inaccurate to portray the agency as unresponsive. There is still ongoing work.”

Dickson’s testimony came a day after the Commerce Committee proposed reforms to the FAA certification process, including a new requirement for manufacturers to prioritize safety, enhanced protection for whistleblowers and changes to the system for delegating certain technical approvals to manufacturers. Besides Congress, several independent groups have investigated the MAX accidents, including the National Transportation Safety Board. Dickson outlined an action plan based on many of the recommendations.

Asked by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, if Boeing had lied to the FAA during the certification process for the MAX, Dickson replied, “Definitely, there was incomplete and fragmented information that was provided.” Pressed about who exactly messed up, Dickson said, “The manufacturer made mistakes and the FAA made mistakes in its oversight. The full implications of the flight control system were not understood as design changes were made.”

From a cargo standpoint, the 737 MAX can accommodate between 2,500 and 5,000 pounds of freight and mail, in addition to passenger baggage, but U.S. carriers average only a few hundred pounds of cargo per departure on similar 737 variants, due to the small nature of the planes, limited demand and other constraints, according to aviation experts.

MAX return timetable

Dickson reiterated that the FAA will not give the greenlight for the MAX, which has been grounded for more than a year after two crashes killed 346 people, until it can determine whether proposed software upgrades and pilot training correct problems with the automated flight control system, and that the process will not be subject to artificial deadlines.

“The FAA fully controls the approval process for the flight control systems and is not delegating anything to Boeing. The FAA will even retain authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all new 737 MAX airplanes manufactured since the grounding. When the 737 MAX is returned to service, it will be because the safety issues have been addressed and pilots have received all of the training they need to safely operate the aircraft,” he said in prepared remarks.

Actions that must still take place before the MAX can return to service include a certification test flight, an evaluation by an international panel of the updated pilot training program, and a review of all design documentation by a multiagency technical board 

Going forward, aircraft certification will have several new features, including:

  • A holistic approach that takes into account interdependencies between all systems and crew rather than reviewing each item in isolation.
  • Taking into account how humans interact with automated systems during operation and maintenance.
  • Hiring more technical experts with experience in emerging technologies, better coordinating data flows with manufacturers.

The FAA is seeking extra money from Congress to set up a centralized office to oversee how it delegates certain certification tasks to manufacturers themselves, Dickson said.

“No matter what the structure of the FAA, it must be clear that it is an independent agency with oversight of certification,” ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said. “There’s a lot of discussion about Wall Street and the approach to aviation of value engineering. … The FAA management needs to be willing to back up … engineers on the ground who are calling out safety concerns at the earliest phases of the process, not at the end, and certainly not after certification.”

(Click here for more FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch.)