Air safety bill prompted by 737 Max flaws pulled before vote

Bipartisan co-sponsors say they're still in agreement, but some committee members raised new concerns

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 16, 2020 at 12:38pm

The chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce committee abruptly halted plans to vote Wednesday on a bipartisan aviation safety bill crafted in the wake of two Boeing 737 Max crashes, citing “unresolved issues” among committee rank and file.

Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced the bill in June, which sought to reduce the influence of aircraft makers like Boeing on the Federal Aviation Administration's aircraft certification process. The bill marked the most significant legislative reaction to the 2018 and 2019 Boeing 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

But Wicker announced Wednesday that he had pulled the bill off the agenda.

“Our postponement today amounts to a setback,” he said. “But I reiterate my willingness to work in good faith on any proposal with any member of this committee.”

[House committee: FAA, Boeing cultures led to 737 Max disasters]

Cantwell, meanwhile, said the bill had been pulled after the committee failed to reach an agreement about a handful of amendments filed Tuesday night. 

She said the staff would continue to work on unresolved issues. 

“It’s very important that we have accountability and transparency both at FAA and at manufacturers,” she said. 

In a brief interview, Wicker said he and Cantwell still agree on the bill, but late Tuesday some rank-and-file committee members had broken with the pair. “We normally do things by consensus," he said. "And the consensus fell apart about 11:45 last night."

Tighter control

The bill, which was the result of recommendations from aviation experts after those crashes, would tighten the FAA’s control over the Organization Designation Authorization process, which allows it to delegate certain certification tasks to employees at Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers.

The bill would give the agency authority to approve or remove Boeing employees conducting FAA certification tasks. It would also grant new whistleblower protections to employees. And it would require the FAA to act on the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations for new safety standards for automation and pilot training, including how humans respond and interact with technology.

The bill would require the FAA to conduct more research into how people react to technology when designing and certifying aircraft and establish an FAA center of excellence that would examine human factors and automation within aviation.

The markup had been scheduled to occur on the same day that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee released a 238-page report summarizing the committee's 18-month investigation of the Boeing accidents. That investigation was the result of examination of some 600,000 pages of records and interviews with more than two dozen Boeing and FAA employees. The report concluded that a weak regulatory environment, flawed engineering and a company culture focused on profit over safety helped contribute to the factors that resulted in the accidents.

Ed Pierson, a Boeing whistleblower, criticized the Senate legislation Tuesday, saying it needed to focus more heavily on production quality in the factory. Pierson, who worked as a supervisor in the Renton, Wash., plant, said the company put undue pressure on staff to produce — pressure which contributed to crucial mistakes.

"I hope the decision to delay today's hearing on the aviation safety bill is a sign that senators are reconciling with the painful truths about Boeing and the FAA revealed in this morning's report," Pierson said Wednesday. "I trust the Senate is doing their best to make sure their legislation hits the mark."

Pierson said the FAA took a “minimalist” approach to overseeing production that was far from sufficient to oversee and ensure the safety of their work.

“There’s nothing in the bill about production quality,” he said of the original bill. “We’re hoping the Senate rethinks this.” 

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.