The legislation also would provide the FAA an extra $30 million a year to beef up its own engineering and technical teams and calls for some two dozen other changes to the nation’s aviation safety regime.
The crashes, the first off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018, and the second in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in March 2019, killed a total of 346. In both cases, investigators have concluded that an automated system on the planes malfunctioned, driving their noses down as the pilots struggled in vain to regain control.
The Max was grounded worldwide soon thereafter.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the Transportation Committee’s chairman, said an investigation by his staff into the crashes had left him “alarmed.”
“But being alarmed and outraged is not where this story should end,” DeFazio said in a statement. “With the comprehensive legislation we are unveiling today, I believe history can also show this was the moment Congress stepped up to meaningfully address the gaps in the regulatory system for certifying aircraft and adopt critical reforms that will improve public safety and ensure accountability at all levels going forward.”
The committee Republicans’ support for the bill is something of a surprise because they have previously questioned Democrats’ focus on making changes to the FAA’s safety oversight system and did not take part in the committee’s investigation.
But Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), the committee’s top Republican, said other expert reviews of the crashes highlighted problems with how the FAA conducts approvals for new planes that ought to be addressed.
“These thorough, nonpartisan, expert reviews provided recommendations that formulated the basis of improvements we are seeking through this legislation,” Graves said in a statement. “I believe this bill will improve safety and strengthen America’s competitiveness in the aerospace industry while ensuring that the United States and the FAA continue to be the global gold standard in aviation.”
Earlier this month, the committee Democrats released the findings of their 18-month investigation into the crashes. They concluded that Boeing missed opportunities to improve the safety of the automated system that was implicated in the crashes and which its own employees had raised concerns about. The FAA, meanwhile, failed to effectively oversee the company and ensure that the Max was safe, the investigation found.
The two crashes are “clear evidence that the current regulatory system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repaired,” the committee’s investigators wrote.
The House investigation identified two particular problems: A system in which Boeing employees are responsible for carrying out safety work on behalf of the FAA but lack independence and FAA managers who were willing to overrule their own experts on safety questions.
FAA officials have said they are pursuing changes internally, but a survey of employees in the agency’s safety branch conducted between October and February found many still faulted its dealings with big companies like Boeing. One compared meetings with the company as being like “showing up to a knife fight with Nerf weapons.”
The House legislation aims to provide a remedy.
It would create an independent panel to review manufacturers’ safety approval operations and require the FAA to review them on an ongoing basis. The FAA administrator would be given the power to approve individual company employees assigned to those operations and to remove them for any reason.
The bill also would ban other Boeing employees from interfering with the work of employees assigned to the safety operation and allow for communication between front-line FAA and Boeing engineers.
A separate section in the bill would create a formal appeal system for companies to question safety decisions the FAA makes in the approval process and prohibit agency officials and company executives from communicating about the dispute outside the process.
The legislation also calls for “cooling off periods” for people moving between private companies and the FAA, restricting new FAA employees from overseeing their former employer for a year.
The Senate’s Commerce Committee has been considering similar legislation, which shares the objective of guaranteeing that Boeing’s government overseers have greater independence and includes many of the same provisions as the House bill. A vote to advance the bill, which also has bipartisan support, was abruptly canceled this month so the committee could consider amendments, but the proposal is still under review.
The FAA is continuing with its work to sign off on design changes Boeing has made to the Max and certify the planes as safe to fly again. The changes are designed to tame the automated system, make it more reliable and better prepare pilots to deal with a malfunction.
But agency employees must still weigh some 220 public comments on the changes, including objections from families of victims of the crashes and recommendations from a union representing FAA employees.
Another key step in the approval process is expected this week, with FAA Administrator Stephen M. Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines pilot, scheduled to take new training the agency is considering for Max pilots and fly one of the jets himself.