- 737 Max 8 could fly passengers by year’s end
- `Bum’s rush’ to get plane back in air, union pilot says
Boeing Co.’s 737 Max 8 could be flying again before the Federal Aviation Administration’s blue-ribbon panel or the Transportation Department’s inspector general complete their investigations of the certification that initially cleared the jet.
The evaluation of the Max’s fitness to fly doesn’t depend on those probes’ findings, according to an FAA memo and a Transportation Department email. The FAA panel first met only last week.
“It’s not lost on us that the very same system that we’re counting on for this aircraft to be recertified is the same system that’s being called into question,” Captain Dennis Tajer, a pilot for American Airlines Group Inc. and spokesman for Allied Pilots Association, said in an interview. Tajer flies the Boeing 737, including the Max.
Immediately following the second fatal crash of a Max on March 10 that prompted aviation regulators worldwide to order the plane grounded, Congress focused on how the jet came to be certified in the first place. Several lawmakers called “cozy” the process known as Organization Designation Authorization (ODA), which allows plane manufacturers to pay their own employees to oversee much of the FAA-approved certification work.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had touted both the FAA and IG investigations to assuage lawmakers during appearances before the House and Senate Transportation-HUD appropriations subcommittees. That came before Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, said June 12 that the year-end timeline for the Max’s return to the air projected by Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg sounded correct.
“It appears they are in a bum’s rush to get this airplane back in the air,” Captain Dan Carey, Allied Pilots Association president, said in an interview.
The blue-ribbon panel’s meeting last week came two months after Chao announced its membership. The “ungrounding process for the Max is not contingent on the special committee’s review,” the Transportation Department told lawmakers in a memo obtained by Bloomberg Government.
The “Max’s return to service does not require the IG to complete its report,” the department told Bloomberg Government in an email. The inspector general’s office began its investigation March 27 and usually takes 10-12 months to complete its work, according to an IG spokesman.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he intends to keep investigating the Max’s certification while stopping short of saying the FAA and Transportation Department reviews should be completed before the plane is cleared.
“The FAA must be absolutely certain the Max is safe before putting it back into service, which is why I’m encouraged the agency heeded my call to convene an independent body of experts to review its work well before the Max is restored to service,” DeFazio said. “I am following that process closely and look forward to hearing the Technical Advisory Board’s recommendations.’’
Enter the Lobbyists
The special panel, or blue-ribbon committee, is tasked with reviewing the 737 Max 8 certification from 2012 to 2017, and recommending improvements to the process, the Transportation Department said April 22 when it announced the full panel membership.
By that time, lobbyists whose clients had an interest in getting Boeing’s jet back in the air had been on Capitol Hill for weeks.
According to lobbying disclosures covering the first quarter, which ended 21 days after the Ethiopian Air crash that prompted the grounding, Southwest Airlines Co. deployed Missouri-based Kit Bond Strategies to discuss “general matters pertaining to the investigation of the Boeing 737 Max” with House and Senate offices as well as the Transportation Department. Bond is a former four-term Republican senator from Missouri.
Southwest’s 34 Max 8 jets form one of the world’s largest fleet of the planes and were used on just under 5% of daily flights. Southwest said it complied with the FAA grounding order in March.
The special committee first met from June 18-20, three months after the FAA grounded the Max. Its members are “reviewing FAA’s aviation certification processes with the aim of identifying, and recommending, possible improvements,” Philip Newman, assistant administrator for government and industry affairs at the FAA, told lawmakers in a memo.
Chao’s office determined, however, that the panel doesn’t fall under the umbrella of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, so its meetings and findings won’t be made public, the FAA said in an email. The IG’s report will be public, but only after the investigation is completed early next year.
`Shortsighted and Dangerous’
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he’s “deeply concerned” by Boeing’s and the FAA’s “lack of transparency” throughout the process.
“The FAA’s current certification system of safety on the cheap is neither safe nor cheap—it has crashed the agency’s credibility,” he said in an email. “Any attempt to rush these planes back into service would be both shortsighted and dangerous.”
“Independent scrutiny is critical to guaranteeing the aircraft’s safety before it’s allowed in the skies again, and importantly, to rebuild the trust of the American people,” Blumenthal said.
Recertifying the Max won’t reduce congressional pressure on the FAA to take a hard look at how it certifies aircraft, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said.
“What happened in the first place is something that we definitely need to do a deeper dive on, and I’ll be pushing for that,” Duckworth said in an interview. “I don’t think that’s relevant to whether or not they fix the issue with the Max.” Duckworth piloted helicopters in Operation Iraqi Freedom combat and is now a general aviation pilot.
The FAA has “ceded” perhaps too much of its power to the manufacturers, she said.
House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price (D-N.C.) said his panel’s spending bill included $267 million in new money for aviation safety above last year’s funding, including for inspectors and technicians in anticipation of findings from the IG and the blue ribbon panel.
“The ongoing investigations and congressional hearings examining the overall certification process must continue regardless of when the FAA clears the MAX 8 for service,” Price said in an emailed statement.
Blumenthal said he is drafting legislation to “repair this broken safety system and ensure experts and whistleblowers have increased protection when they sound alarms.”
Not everyone agrees the system is broken.
The certification process in which the FAA’s delegates to outside engineers works “very well,” House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a pilot, said in an interview.
“We just don’t have the manpower, and nor should we. All that’s going to do is just make the government even larger than it is,” he said.
An IG or blue-ribbon report might make people feel more comfortable, but Graves doesn’t need the reports to be confident in the FAA or the Max, he said.
“This is a safe airplane. I would fly one today,” Graves said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org