December 11, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Larsen Statements from Hearing titled, “The Boeing 737 MAX: Examining the Federal Aviation Administration’s Oversight of the Aircraft’s Certification”

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) during today’s hearing titled: “The Boeing 737 MAX: Examining the Federal Aviation Administration’s Oversight of the Aircraft’s Certification.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you to our witnesses for being here today. This is the Committee’s fifth hearing on the design, development and certification of the Boeing 737 MAX in response to two catastrophic crashes that claimed 346 lives in the span of five months.

Once again, I’d like to recognize the family members of those killed in these preventable crashes, some of whom are here today. Our thoughts are with you all. We are here to ensure that the lives of your family members were not lost in vain.

You can be sure this Committee will continue to be aggressive in our oversight efforts to determine what went so horribly wrong and why, and we will not rest until we have enacted legislation to prevent future unairworthy airplanes from slipping through the regulatory cracks and into airline service.

In November 2018, a few days after a powerful system running in the background of the 737 MAX called MCAS pushed Lion Air flight 610 into an unrecoverable dive, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive that purported to inform pilots on how to respond to an erroneous activation of MCAS, while never actually mentioning that system by name. In fact, during the certification of the 737 MAX, Boeing actively pushed the FAA to remove references to MCAS from the flight crew operating manual, as revealed in the e-mails and instant messages from Boeing executive Mark Forkner, which Boeing initially failed to provide to the Committee. The FAA accepted Boeing’s push, and Forkner went on to boast that he was “Jedi mind-tricking” other civil aviation regulators to adopt the FAA’s faulty decision.

But perhaps most chillingly, we have learned that shortly after the issuance of the airworthiness directive, the FAA performed an analysis that concluded that, if left uncorrected, the MCAS design flaw in the 737 MAX could result in as many as 15 future fatal crashes over the life of the fleet—and that was assuming that 99 out of 100 flight crews could comply with the airworthiness directive and successfully react to the cacophony of alarms and alerts recounted in the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the Lion Air tragedy within 10 seconds. Such an assumption, we know now, was tragically wrong.

Despite its own calculations, the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public and let the 737 MAX continue to fly until Boeing could overhaul its MCAS software. Tragically, the FAA’s analysis—which never saw the light of day beyond the closed doors of the FAA and Boeing—was correct. The next crash would occur just five months later, when Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 plummeted to earth in March 2019.

Update on Investigation

The Committee’s investigation into the two 737 MAX crashes was launched just days after the second accident in March, and we have received more than half a million pages of documents from Boeing, the FAA and other parties that my staff continues to analyze. And that doesn’t even include numerous emails from the FAA that we have requested; we just received a large batch on Monday night in response to our April request. And others are yet to be provided.  

We have interviewed or spoken with FAA employees and Boeing whistleblowers, among others. These documents, email and interviews are crucial to our investigation, which has uncovered a broken safety culture within Boeing and an FAA that was unknowing, unable or unwilling to step up, regulate, and provide appropriate oversight of Boeing. The FAA failed to ask the right questions and failed to adequately question the answers that agency staff received from Boeing.

Our investigation has revealed that many of the FAA’s own technical experts and safety inspectors believe FAA’s management often sides with Boeing rather than standing up for the safety of the public. Mr. Dickson, I have read your testimony and appreciate the tenor and substance of your remarks. I commend your commitment to cultivating a just culture among FAA employees—and ensuring that they have the analysis and tools necessary to make the right decisions in the name of safety. But our investigation to date has established that FAA employees did not have the analysis and tools necessary to make the right decisions in the case of the 737 MAX. These safety specialists need your support. There is no imaginable situation in which they should be jammed or subjected to end-runs by Boeing to their managers. I expect you and your subordinates to back them up: to defend their reasonable decisions based on technical evidence and mandated compliance with FAA regulations in the interest of safety.

Boeing made egregious errors, including the furtive implementation of MCAS while knowing it could present a “catastrophic” risk. The FAA also failed to do its job. It failed to provide the regulatory oversight necessary to ensure the safety of the flying public. The FAA trusted, but did not appropriately verify, key information and assumptions Boeing presented to the agency about the 737 MAX. And this was at a time when Boeing’s own employees, as we learned at our last hearing, reported they perceived “undue pressure” from management.

Purpose of Hearing

We are striving to understand what went wrong here and what we need to fix legislatively. Our goal is to prevent a future unsafe airplane design from slipping through the cracks and exposing millions of airline passengers to an unacceptable risk.

In that spirit, on our first panel, we will hear from FAA Administrator Steve Dickson and a member of the review panel that is assessing remedial changes to the 737 MAX design.

Mr. Dickson, I appreciate what I read in your testimony about your approach to improving safety. But, I will have some tough questions for you, and I hope to hear from you about what the FAA has identified as faults and failures in the certification of the 737 MAX and FAA processes generally—and what concrete steps you have taken to date to correct them. I also appreciate your commitment that the 737 MAX will not take flight again until you—and your employees responsible for overseeing Boeing and certifying its MCAS overhaul—are 100 percent confident in its safety.

On our second panel, we will hear from two former FAA and Boeing employees as well as two well-respected experts in the fields of aviation safety and human factors for their perspectives on the faulty design of this airplane.

Undue Pressure

On our second panel we’ll hear from an FAA whistleblower that Boeing applied undue pressure on FAA managers to overrule those managers’ own safety engineers and experts on safety-critical matters. According to information provided to the Committee, FAA safety engineers determined that an uncontained engine failure on a 737 MAX could send shrapnel through the rudder control cables. And in a high-thrust, low-energy situation such as initial climb off the runway—or even during the takeoff roll—the pilots would likely lose control of the airplane. But the FAA dismissed this concern.  We need to know why.

Chair Larsen and I wrote Administrator Dickson about this issue early last month, and on Friday afternoon we finally received a response. However, your response still doesn’t explain how the unanimous judgment of more than a dozen FAA safety experts was overruled by a single manager. On what data was that manager relying? I am glad that one of our witnesses on the second panel was directly involved in the rudder cable issue while he was at FAA so we can get his straightforward perspective on this issue based on his nearly three decades of experience at the agency.

Promotion of Industry

In 1996, I pushed to remove the FAA’s statutory mandate to “promote” the civil aviation industry following the ValuJet flight 592 accident. That’s why I’m particularly concerned this investigation has produced rumors that some people within the FAA either feel it’s their role to facilitate the U.S. aviation industry’s agenda, or feel pressure from outside or from above to do so.

I want Administrator Dickson’s absolute assurance today that he and Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell will clearly and frequently communicate to the FAA workforce—and to the industry—that the work of every single FAA employee must be in the service of one and only one objective: preserving aviation safety.

Let the industry promote itself. If it needs help in that effort, I’m sure the Commerce Department is happy to oblige. Your job, Administrator Dickson, is to regulate. The only thing you should be promoting is the highest possible level of safety.

Millions of lives are at stake. We have to get this right. We will be changing the certification laws to ensure the 346 lives lost in Ethiopia and in the Java Sea were not lost in vain.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about how we can accomplish that goal.  Thank you.

Chair DeFazio's remarks as delivered can be found here


Chair Larsen:

Thank you, Chair DeFazio.

With today’s hearing, the Committee reaches another milestone in its investigation.

It is increasingly clear the process by which the FAA evaluates and certifies aircraft is itself in need of repair.

Congress must reevaluate and improve the current certification process to ensure the safety of the flying public.

As this critical oversight work continues, the 346 lives tragically lost in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes will remain at the forefront of these efforts.

Several of the family members of the victims are here today. I extend my deepest condolences to you and your loved ones. Your advocacy makes a difference. 

The FAA must fix its credibility problem. Just like I asked Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg at the Committee’s last hearing, I expect to hear the three main mistakes the FAA made regarding the 737 MAX and the specific steps the agency is taking to restore public confidence.

I also look forward to hearing about the TAB’s progress as it looks over the FAA’s shoulder as the agency works on a return to service decision.

From today’s second panel, the two former Boeing and FAA employees are providing an important perspective on questionable management decision-making that seem to prioritize economic interests over public safety.

Further, I am interested in learning more from the safety experts on the panel about the integration of human factors as aviation technology becomes increasingly automated. Airplanes are changing, but the federal government and certification is not changing with those planes.

Though 2019 is coming to an end, the Committee’s investigation is far from over.

The Committee will continue to maintain safety as the guiding principle and use all available tools to ensure the safety of the traveling public.

Thank you, I yield back.

Chair Larsen's remarks as delivered can be found here.