Boeing 737 Max Fix Bill Yanked From Debate by Senate Panel (1)

  • Postponing bill debate is ‘setback,’ panel chairman said
  • Troubled Boeing plane could return to skies in coming months

(Updates throughout to reflect committee postponement of bill. Adds comments from victim’s father and senators.)

A Senate panel postponed debate on a bill Wednesday that would revamp how new aircraft are deemed safe to fly, hours after House investigators blasted Boeing Co. and federal regulators for mistakes that led to two fatal 737 Max jet crashes.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the top Democrat on the committee, said members couldn’t agree on amendments to the bill.

“Our postponement today amounts to a setback,” Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said.

The legislation (S. 3969), introduced by the Senate Commerce Committee’s top Republican and Democrat, would rein in the authority that regulators give aircraft manufacturers to sign off on a plane’s safety components. It would encourage communication between regulators and manufacturers’ in-house safety inspectors, and require plane-makers to have safety management systems to identify and mitigate potential hazards.

The House investigation, released Wednesday by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, contends Boeing’s sway over top Federal Aviation Administration managers, plus a flawed safety approval process, contributed to the accidents that killed 346 people. Michael Stumo, the father of a woman who died in one of the crashes, said Wednesday it’s “a big problem” that the bill doesn’t limit how many safety checks a manufacturer’s staff can certify instead of regulators.

The Senate bill aims to ensure the safety lapses revealed through congressional hearings and investigations aren’t repeated. The House Transportation Committee has yet to offer its own legislative fix for the problems identified in its report.

After more than a year of redesigns, the 737 Max is under review by the FAA and could return to the skies before the end of the year.

Read more: Boeing Deception Alleged in Scathing House Report on Max Crashes

Photo: David Ryder/Bloomberg
Grounded Boeing Co. 737 Max airplanes are seen in a parking lot near Boeing Field in Seattle, Wash.

Senate Commerce Committee leaders developed their legislation using evidence from accident reports, recommendations from aviation specialists, and hearings, according to a June statement. Then-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who was ousted from the company in December, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee last October.

Boeing hasn’t taken a position on the bill, said Bryan Watt, a spokesman for the company, on Tuesday. The company vowed to strengthen its safety culture after the crashes. Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents FAA inspectors, hasn’t taken a position, either. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) supported the bill as introduced.

Self-Certification

The bill wouldn’t eliminate self-certification, which proponents have said allows the FAA to focus on the most complex and dangerous issues. That authority allowed Boeing inspectors, with little input from aviation regulators, to approve a flight-control feature that contributed to the crashes.

Instead, the bill would require the FAA to approve employees at aircraft manufacturers who are involved in reviewing designs.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is pushing to include language that would block the FAA from delegating safety approval on new or critical safety features.

Wicker also introduced a bill (S. 4565) last week that would strengthen protections for whistleblowers at the FAA. The bill hasn’t been considered by the committee.

To contact the reporter on this story: Courtney Rozen in Washington at crozen@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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