September 30, 2020

Opening Statements from Chairs DeFazio and Larsen During Full T&I Committee Markup that Includes Bipartisan Legislation to Strengthen Aviation Safety Following Two Deadly Crashes Involving the Boeing 737 MAX

The “Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act” addresses recommendations included in the Committee’s 238-page report, prepared by Majority Staff, that lays out the serious flaws and missteps in the design, development, and certification of the Boeing 737 MAX

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 Full Committee markup on several measures, including bipartisan legislation to strengthen the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) certification process:

Chair DeFazio:

I am pleased today to bring up H.R. 8408, the “Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act,” together with Ranking Member Sam Graves, Aviation Subcommittee Chair Larsen, and Subcommittee Ranking Member Garret Graves. Aviation safety should never be partisan, and this bill demonstrates once again that Democrats and Republicans on this Committee can still come together and advance landmark legislation that makes air travel safer.

We are here today because of two Boeing 737 MAX crashes in the span of five months in 2018 and 2019 that together took the lives of 346 fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Those crashes were the inevitable culmination of stunning acts and omissions within Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—a chain of events that were set in motion as early as 2011, when Boeing decided to re-engine a 1960s-era airplane for the third time.

Those acts and omissions have been laid bare in numerous investigations and reviews in response to the accidents, including a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) safety recommendations report last year; a review by a U.S.-led international panel, the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR); a separate review by a panel of current and former U.S. aviation leaders; incredible investigative journalism, which underscores the value of a free and fair press; and, of course, an 18-month-long investigation by this Committee’s Democratic staff—the most extensive investigation in the Committee’s history—which resulted in a nearly 250-page report that Chair Larsen and I released earlier this month.

Taken together, all of these reviews paint a picture of corporate greed, willful or negligent blindness to basic precepts of aviation safety, and, perhaps most insidious, regulatory capture on the part of the FAA. In fact, after the first crash, both Boeing and the FAA insisted that Boeing was compliant with the Federal Aviation Regulations in its design of MCAS and the information it shared with FAA. But MCAS had just caused one accident and would cause a second within months. If following the process led to certification of an unsafe airplane, then the process is broken, and we will fix it.

That single point of failure—a tiny, fragile vane protruding from either side of the nose—triggered a cacophony of competing cautions and warnings in the flight deck, including a violent stick-shaker that erroneously warned the pilots of a stall. And it caused the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, or MCAS, to activate and repeatedly force the airplane’s nose down to an extent that few, if any, pilots could counteract.

Boeing assumed, in the design process, that pilots would recognize erroneous MCAS activation and perform the procedure to take the system offline in four seconds. I would invite my colleagues to imagine yourself in an airliner cockpit in flight. Now add in a jarring stick-shaker that’s violently pounding your control stick to tell you you’re in a stall, even though you’re pretty sure you aren’t; a flag on your flight instruments that your airspeed and altitude readings are unreliable; and numerous warning lights that have suddenly lit up around the flight deck. And on top of all this, add an unseen force pushing the nose of your airplane down toward the earth even as you pull with all your might to right the ship. And now count to four: one, two, three, four. Boeing assumed that, by now, you’ll have diagnosed the situation and performed a procedure to shut off the system.

I would challenge anyone to sort through that blizzard of alerts in four seconds, determine what’s going on, and apply the proper procedure. A Boeing test pilot in a simulator in 2012 sure couldn’t, as the Committee staff’s investigation revealed. That pilot took more than 10 seconds to respond correctly and found the condition to be “catastrophic,” meaning the situation would have been unsalvageable.

Our investigation and others have revealed, furthermore, that Boeing concealed—or in the most charitable description failed to disclose—important information about MCAS from the FAA, airlines, and pilots. Boeing removed references to MCAS from the pilots’ operating manuals, even though they were supposed to respond correctly to erroneous MCAS activation within four seconds. The FAA never reviewed a consolidated, holistic assessment of the “airplane-level” effects of an angle-of-attack sensor failure and resulting MCAS activation. Had FAA officials done that, surely they would have asked questions that would have exposed the danger Boeing had designed into the system.

Not that there wasn’t plenty of opportunity within Boeing to stop and think about MCAS and the hazardous situations it could create. At one juncture, a Boeing employee who was authorized by the FAA as part of the FAA’s ODA program to determine the design’s compliance with FAA requirements asked in an e-mail if the airplane was vulnerable to a single angle-of-attack sensor failure. The employee was given a summary assurance that MCAS was not vulnerable, but that assurance was wrong. The “eyes and ears” of the FAA on the ground at Boeing left the FAA largely in the dark as well regarding issues that affected the airplane’s certification.

Our investigation uncovered innumerable instances of similar missed opportunities.

The culture of profits at any cost within the company may well have been a factor in the failure to root out safety problems. According to a 2016 internal survey of similar Boeing employees, who at the time were called “authorized representatives” of the FAA Administrator, 39 percent of respondents said they felt “undue pressure” from Boeing management to make decisions in the company’s interest.

And there was the FAA, whose complacency rendered the agency virtually a non-presence in this story until then-Acting Administrator Elwell grounded the airplane after the second one went in—and only after numerous nations had already done so. The FAA was either unable or unwilling to conduct rigorous oversight of Boeing during the certification process. A Boeing employee wrote in an internal e-mail in 2015 that, during a presentation on the 737 MAX, FAA officials were “like dogs watching T.V.”

But here’s the most outrageous indication of a broken safety culture within the very agency that’s supposed to be the leading champion of strong safety cultures: In a recent survey of FAA aviation safety employees, 56 percent of those involved in certification activities believed there was too much external influence on the agency and that this influence was affecting the FAA’s safety decisions—nearly 25 years after I removed the agency’s “dual mandate” of both promoting and regulating the industry.

All of these factors and more—all part of a broken system that broke the public’s trust—culminated in the 2018 and 2019 737 MAX accidents. And the bill we are considering today will fix that broken system. It requires the FAA to approve authorized representatives at all aviation manufacturers by examining both their qualifications and character so that, when they are considering a proposed design, they will remember that public safety rests on their shoulders. And any person who interferes with an authorized representative’s performance of his or her critical duties on behalf of the FAA will be subject to a civil penalty going forward.

The bill also imposes civil penalties for a manufacturer’s failure to disclose the details of systems like MCAS that manipulate flight controls without direct pilot input, and for a manufacturer’s delivery of an airplane that does not conform to its FAA-approved design. The bill requires two FAA rulemakings that, together, will require manufacturers to provide the agency with thorough assessments measuring the risks created by changes to existing aircraft designs, so that the FAA can ascertain whether a manufacturer has sufficiently minimized any given risk.

The bill requires the FAA to hire more staff to rigorously review new designs and authorizes enough funding to hire 100 of them. It also requires the FAA to implement a non-punitive voluntary safety reporting program for FAA employees to report safety concerns, prohibits agency officials from talking with manufacturers about formal objections to FAA career employees’ decisions unless publicly disclosing information about those communications, and it extends, to manufacturers’ employees, the same whistleblower protections that apply to airline employees today. And much more.

To the families of the victims of Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, I say thank you. Thank you for your support and for your continued advocacy. Your loved ones should not have died, but they did not die in vain, because you have the attention of this Committee, the Congress, the FAA, and global civil aviation authorities, and we will do whatever it takes to ensure that other families never have to endure the same loss.

I thank Ranking Member Graves for his partnership in advancing this legislation, and I look forward to continuing to work with my Republican colleagues on this legislation as we advance the bill to the House Floor later this year.

With that, I recognize Ranking Member Graves for a statement.

(Video of Chair DeFazio’s statement can be found here.)

Chair Larsen:

Thank you, Chair DeFazio, for holding today’s markup of the Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act.

Your leadership on this landmark legislation, and the partnership of Ranking Members Graves and Graves, underscores the importance of this Committee’s oversight work to ensure aviation safety. 

On October 29, 2018, and March 10, 2019, 346 people tragically died in the Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashes. 

The victims were parents, children, teachers, friends and humanitarians who deserved to arrive safely at their destinations. 

For nearly two years, while experiencing unthinkable grief, the victims’ loved ones tirelessly advocated for necessary reforms to the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft certification process. 

Their presence has served as a constant reminder of what is at stake if Congress does not address the systemic safety issues in U.S. aviation. 

Since the start of the Committee’s thorough investigation 18 months ago into the design, development and certification of the Boeing 737 MAX, safety has been the guiding principle.

The Committee reviewed more than 500,000 pages of documents provided by the FAA, Boeing and others; held five hearings with the administration and stakeholders across the aviation industry and the victims’ families; interviewed key employees at Boeing and the FAA; and listened to concerns from several whistleblowers.

The Committee’s thorough investigation uncovered seriously flawed management decisions and inadequate organizational structures at Boeing and the FAA that are difficult to hear, but necessary to confront about the 737 MAX certification. These include:

  • Boeing’s failure to disclose safety critical information to the FAA and customers;
  • FAA’s significant lack of oversight;
  • Unprecedented production pressures that put profits over people.   

Combined, these issues eroded safety and contributed to the two 737 MAX crashes.

Congress has an obligation to the 346 victims of the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes and their families, as well as the traveling public, to strengthen the FAA’s oversight and aircraft certification process and ensure the safety of air travel. 

The Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act is a bipartisan, comprehensive bill to bridge the significant gaps in the current aircraft certification process uncovered by the Committee’s investigation and others. 

The legislation will improve safety culture by requiring:

  • FAA to issue rules for the aviation industry manufacturers to adopt safety management systems (SMS).
  • An expert review panel to evaluate Boeing’s safety culture and to make recommendations for improvements.
  • FAA approval of ODA unit members who work for manufacturers, but on behalf of the FAA, to ensure they are qualified and of good character to perform their duties in the public interest of safety.

It will also enhance transparency and accountability by requiring, among other things:

  • Manufacturers to disclose aircraft safety-critical information, particularly related to flight control systems, to the FAA and flight crews.
  • The FAA, in collaboration with labor unions, to implement a confidential voluntary reporting program for employees to identify potential safety issues or other concerns. 

Our legislation will address undue pressure on employees acting on behalf of the FAA within a

manufacturer by:

  • Imposing a civil penalty against individuals within a company who interfere with an ODA unit member’s performance of their FAA-authorized duties.
  • Directing the FAA to establish an appeal process for FAA employees to seek elevated review of decisions made regarding a manufacturer’s compliance with FAA safety standards with which they dispute as erroneous.
  • Extending whistleblower protections, like those currently afforded to airline employees, to U.S. manufacturing employees.

It also includes my bipartisan bill with Subcommittee Ranking Member Graves to reinforce human factors, requiring:

  • FAA to evaluate tools to integrate human factors into the aircraft certification of flight control systems for transport airplanes.
  • The agency to develop a human factors education program for relevant employees and other authorized representatives.
  • Manufacturers to provide the FAA with information and findings on flight crew training to ensure it adequately includes consideration of human factors. 

The foundation of U.S. aviation is safety.

This bill reinforces this foundation to ensure the integrity of the FAA and U.S. aviation manufacturing. 

The two tragic 737 MAX crashes served as stark wake up calls about the deficiencies in the aircraft certification process. Our legislation makes necessary improvements to address these issues. 

Thank you to Majority and Minority Committee staff for their hard work on this bipartisan legislation. 

I look forward to moving it through to the House Floor.

(Video of Chair Larsen’s statement can be found here.)

(A livestream of today’s markup can be found here.)


Press Contact

Kerry Arndt (DeFazio)

Joseph Tutino (Larsen)