Time expiring for aircraft oversight bills driven by 737 Max

Two bills mark most significant legislative reaction to deadly crashes

An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 arriving is seen taxiing to its gate at the Miami International Airport on March 12, 2019. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 arriving is seen taxiing to its gate at the Miami International Airport on March 12, 2019. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Posted December 15, 2020 at 4:47pm

House and Senate measures aimed at shoring up the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety culture in response to two Boeing 737 Max crashes are caught in a squeeze, with Congress running out of time to approve a final measure before it adjourns for the year.

The bills, though different, have similar themes: Both call for the FAA to tighten its oversight of the aircraft certification process, including stricter scrutiny of an FAA process that allows manufacturers to approve parts of their new aircraft. 

Both bills call for research into how humans interact with increasingly complex technology. And both include measures to crack down on coziness between federal regulators and airplane manufacturers that watchdogs say contributed to the 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610 and the 2019 crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which killed 346 people combined.

While the bills were not identical, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said she believed there was very little to resolve.

“I think there are different approaches and, you know, some approaches in the House that I certainly agree to and some approaches in the Senate that are really trying to change the culture at the FAA and change the culture within industry and change the oversight here,” she said last week.

“I don't think that they're insurmountable issues, but we're in this environment here so I think it depends how long the clock runs here,” Cantwell said, referring to uncertainty about Congress’ busy end-of-term agenda. “If it runs for a few more weeks, I think we can get it done. If we end up going out in a week like people suggested, then I don't know.”

That busy agenda includes a must-pass omnibus spending bill and a coronavirus relief package, which could serve as vehicles for the FAA legislation.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, said he was hopeful that the bills, both passed on overwhelmingly bipartisan bases, would be included in an omnibus bill. 

“I don’t want to restart” the legislation, he said.

“The bill that passed in the House doesn’t have a lot of differences with the Senate’s,” he said. “There are differences over some emphases, but it’s nothing that’s insurmountable.” 

Combined, the two bills mark the most significant legislative reaction to the two deadly crashes since they occurred. The 737 Max was grounded from March 2019 until FAA Administrator Steve Dickson lifted the grounding order last month.

Self-certification

The House bill, which passed by voice vote Nov. 17, seeks to tighten FAA oversight of the aircraft certification process by overhauling an FAA process called Organization Designation Authorization, which allows manufacturers to certify parts of their own aircraft. That process has been criticized as contributing to a lax regulatory compliance environment that eroded the safety culture at the Chicago-based Boeing. 

It would convene an independent expert review panel that would review Boeing's ODA as well as the company's safety culture and ability to perform FAA-delegated functions and direct the FAA to conduct a review of all of its ODA holders every seven years. 

It also would give the FAA the ability to dismiss any person authorized to perform FAA certification tasks and would authorize $3 million a year for each fiscal year 2021 through 2023 for the FAA to ensure adequate staffing and resources to complete such reviews and approvals.

The House measure would authorize $27 million per year from fiscal years 2021 through 2023 to allow the FAA to recruit and retain employees to help in the certification of aircraft, engines and other components.

The bill seeks to eliminate conflicts of interest by putting "cooling-off period" restrictions on Boeing employees who go to work for the FAA or vice versa. And it would bar FAA employees from receiving a bonus or raise solely for meeting or exceeding a deadline related to the completion of a certification function.

By comparison, the Senate bill, which the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved on Nov. 18, would also give the FAA increased authority to approve or remove Boeing employees conducting FAA certification tasks. 

It also would grant new whistleblower protections to employees and 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 Senate bill also includes language to require the agency to create a "National Air Grant Fellowship Program,” modeled on the successful Sea Grant program, which pairs graduate students who have an interest in marine policy with fellowships in Congress and the executive branch. 

It also includes language aimed at ensuring that the FAA works with foreign civil aviation authorities on safety management systems as well as providing new restrictions on “changed” aeronautical products. 

Critics have argued that Boeing sought the easier-to-receive certification on heavily “changed” products when it should’ve sought certification for new products instead.

That bill has not passed the full Senate. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., earlier this month expressed frustration that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had not put the Senate Boeing bill on the floor.

“The Senate can’t seem to take up and pass things that passed the House unanimously,” DeFazio said.