Witness Panel 1:
- The Honorable Stephen Dickson, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration
Witness Panel 2:
- Mr. Michael Stumo, Father of Samya Rose Stumo, Victim of Ethiopian Airlines Flight T302
*Witness list subject to change
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Full Committee Hearing
This hearing will take place in the Dirksen Senate Office Building G50. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
*In order to maintain physical distancing as advised by the Office of the Attending Physician, seating for credentialed press will be limited throughout the course of the hearing. Due to current limited access to the Capitol complex, the general public is encouraged to view this hearing via the live stream.
Chairman Roger Wicker
March 10 marked the one-year anniversary of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which was preceded by the loss of Lion Air Flight 610. The aircraft involved in both accidents was the Boeing 737 MAX. Our deepest sympathies continue to go out to the families of those loved ones who are among the 346 souls lost in these crashes.
Since the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the Committee has heard from many whistleblowers at the FAA, at Boeing, and in the aviation industry. It is increasingly clear from our investigation that the FAA has a number of serious problems to address. My investigations staff has interviewed dozens of witnesses, reviewed many thousands of documents and emails, and been diligent in pursuit of these facts – no matter where they lead. However, I must express my profound frustration with the agency’s lack of responsiveness to most of my requests – dating back to last April – for documents that stem from whistleblower disclosures. On April 2, 2019, I sent then-Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell a letter requesting information about training and certification of the FAA Aviation Safety Inspectors. Following the FAA’s responses to my initial request, I sent a follow-up letter on July 31, 2019, to Acting Administrator Elwell requesting additional information on 65 specific items. These 65 specific items included such serious matters as allegations of whistleblower retaliation by senior FAA managers. Nearly one year later, we have received complete responses for about 10 percent of those items and partial responses for another 30 percent. We have not received any response to over half of these requests. Given the subject matter of today’s hearing, I would note that 12 of the requests that FAA has not responded to pertain directly to the 737 MAX certification – directly to today’s subject matter.
On August 1, 2019, committee staff asked the Department of Transportation (DOT) counsel to identify which item of the requests each production was responsive to, and whether the production represented a complete response. This request has been reiterated several times but has not been consistently followed by the DOT.
The committee has made every effort to aid in document production. Back in September of 2019, the committee staff sent the FAA a prioritized list of 10 of the most significant requests, 10. Two of these 10 items were emphasized again on December 18, 2019. Over the course of nine months, we have received completed responses to two prioritized requests, partial responses to six, and no response at all to two of the top 10 items. In one case, staff requested emails between two FAA employees during a short period of time. The agency provided a response, but it did not include a specific email we were pursuing. Additional narrowing to a specific date by staff was required to produce the specific email sought. The FAA has still not produced the additional emails between these employees that I requested on July 31, 2019. Today is June 17, we have not received any documents since April 27 of this year.
The lack of timely and complete responses to our document requests forced the committee staff to seek FAA staff interviews beginning in October of 2019. The DOT response and handling of the interview requests has been very slow. In seven months, our investigations team has been able to interview only four FAA staff members of the 21 we have requested to interview.
And then came the virus. Recognizing the COVID-19 impact, on April 6, 2020, committee staff requested to move forward with brief written interrogatories of multiple FAA employees to expedite gathering relevant information with minimal impact on involved parties. DOT staff did not provide a definitive answer on the feasibility of written interrogatories until April 30, almost a month later, when they stated that in-person or virtual interviews were preferred.
On May 5, as a result of DOT rejecting the interrogatory approach, the committee staff requested to interview the next FAA employee. On May 11, DOT staff stated that they were working to make the next interviewee available, that was May 5. As of today, June 17, 2020, committee staff have not heard back on when this interview can take place.
Administrator Dickson, in our telephone conversation last Thursday, I raised a number of these matters and spoke of our entire frustration generally. You promised me that your team would work with my staff quickly to get back on track. I am extremely disappointed that we have not made significant progress since the phone call. My staff followed up immediately after our call to set up a meeting with the staff member you identified. That request was acknowledged but no attempt was made to set up the meeting. Last Friday evening, my staff reiterated our meeting request and provided a comprehensive list of all outstanding document and interview requests. My team asked to schedule a call on Monday, which was denied, but your team offered to meet this Thursday, tomorrow – one day after this hearing. The entire purpose, or the large purpose, of the meeting was to get answers before to this hearing, not wait until after its conclusion. It is my understanding that our teams did speak last night after my staff insisted on the timely nature of the call, but no progress was made on resolving the multitude of outstanding issues.
This record of delay and non-responsiveness clearly shows at best an unwillingness to cooperate in Congressional oversight. It is hard not to conclude your team at the FAA has deliberately attempted to keep us in the dark, and by that I mean our investigations staff, our committee, and me. It is hard not to characterize our relationship during this entire process as being adversarial on the part of the FAA. Administrator Dickson, I hold you responsible for this as the head of the agency. During your confirmation hearing, I asked you this question as we ask all nominees, “If confirmed, will you pledge to work collaboratively with this committee and provide thorough and timely responses?” You answered “yes” as we require all nominees to do. The lack of cooperation by your agency calls into question the commitment behind that pledge.
We are not embarking on a fishing expedition. Our requests for documents and interviews have been very specific in content and reasonable in scope. I can only assume that the agency’s stonewalling of my investigation suggests discomfort for what might ultimately be revealed. I expect to receive an explanation today at this hearing for the failure to comply with the committee’s requests.
As I mentioned, part of the committee’s investigation involves the 737 MAX. Following the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the FAA grounded the fleet of 737 MAX airplanes. Over a year later, the plane has still not been cleared to return to passenger service. The FAA, Boeing, and international regulators involved in the recertification process should take whatever time is needed to get the recertification right.
As the recertification continues, a number of reviews – including this Committee’s investigation – have raised concerns about how the MAX was designed and certified, how pilots were trained, and the nature of the relationship between the FAA and Boeing. The FAA needs to hold accountable anyone at the agency or Boeing who broke the rules or fell short of meeting expectations.
Last October, this committee was the first on Capitol Hill to convene an oversight hearing with Boeing leadership. Today, we will hear from Administrator Dickson on what happened during the original certification process, the steps that the agency is taking to return the MAX to safe flight, and how the agency can help prevent future tragedies.
The MAX recertification is a critical component of rebuilding public and international trust in the FAA. Before the MAX crashes, the FAA was the unquestioned “gold standard” with regard to aviation safety. Congress has an important role to play in helping restore the confidence in the agency.
As a result of the committee’s investigations, and findings from the National Transportation Safety Board, from the Joint Authorities Technical Review, and from the Department of Transportation, Ranking Member Cantwell and I have worked hard together and introduced legislation – the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act – to improve aviation safety.
Our legislation creates a new requirement for manufacturers to prioritize safety, it reforms the Organization Designation Authorization (or ODA) system, creates a new emphasis on understanding how pilots interact with modern aircraft and other human factors, enhances protection for whistleblowers, and bolsters Congressional oversight.
This Monday, a day before yesterday, the Ranking Member’s staff requested that Mr. Stumo be allowed to testify. In spite of the lateness of this request, we were able to accommodate such a request by adding a second panel for Mr. Stumo.
I look forward to a detailed discussion of the FAA’s aircraft certification process and how it can be improved so that these tragedies do not happen again. I also expect an explanation of the agency’s unwillingness to respond to this committee’s requests for information.
I now recognize my friend and colleague and Ranking Member, Senator Cantwell, for her opening statement.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell
CANTWELL: Thank you Chairman Wicker, and thank you for your statement. I want to say that as Ranking Member on our side of the aisle, we stand with you for any information requests and efforts to get the FAA to comply with what the majority has been requesting, so thank you for that statement. I want to take a moment to recognize the families who have lost loved ones in the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air tragedies. I can’t imagine the loss and the pain that you are still feeling. I appreciate your vigilance, just as I’ve appreciated the vigilance of the Colgan Air families who often attend our hearing and comment of safety measures before the committee.
It can’t be easy to continue that role, but we thank you for doing it. All of the voices in these efforts to make our skies safer are important. I also look forward to hearing the testimony of Michael Stumo. We have to get this right, for his daughter and the 346 victims of those crashes.
Today’s discussion is about leadership, about restoring America’s leadership in aviation safety. Safety is job one. It’s job one in a critical sector that employs 2.5 million people—150,000 in the state of Washington—but safety is job one because it involves so many lives.
The leadership task begins with the FAA, and you, Administrator Dickson. We look forward to hearing how your efforts to build the FAA’s oversight and capacity to improve safety in response to these two accidents have been undertaken. There have been numerous reports issued since the accidents, and unfortunately, the FAA response to a number of those investigations concerning the MAX seem more a rigid acceptance of the status quo than the needed changes that we want to see at the FAA.
No matter what the structure of the FAA, it must be clear that it is an independent agency with oversight of certification. We need to have the best workforce—which I believe we do, in the Northwest—but we must have experts and investigators that are qualified and technically trained at the FAA to oversee, in a sufficient manner, the compliance process.
Now, there’s a lot of discussion about Wall Street and the approach to aviation of value engineering. I’m going to tell you something about the Northwest. The pride of the Northwest is about innovation and solid engineering, and solid engineering advancements. It is not about doing things on the quick, it is about doing things deliberately and getting safety right. And I want to see a certification process where we are listening to those engineers at the beginning of the process, who are calling out some of these safety issues.
The FAA management needs to be willing to back up those engineers on the ground who are calling out safety concerns at the earliest phases of the process, not at the end, and certainly not after certification. The FAA’s system of delegation dates back to 1958—actually it can be traced back to 1927, when private doctors were used to conduct pilot health checks in the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce. However, it was the FAA’s own action taking authority in delegation of manufacturers for technical approvals that started in 2005 under the ODA [Organization Designation Authorization] system. Under this program, the industry engineers [were] acting on behalf of the FAA. These lines of oversight and communication were fragmented.
I believe—and I think the Chairman believes as well—we need a system of certification where hardworking engineers, and engineering safety, is driving the certification process, not the other way around. We can’t have planes certified, and then after the certification, have them grounded because of unsafe features. A technical review by the international safety authorities, Joint Authority Technical Review (JATR), identified a number of problems with the ODA program and FAA oversight.
Specifically, the need for a more holistic review and the fact that engineering expertise needed to have open communication systems and the technical expertise level of those engineers needed to be there.
So Mr. Dickson, today I hope that we will hear about what the FAA believes needs to be reformed in this program. What reforms, of those suggested by Chairman Wicker and myself, do you support. I want to thank Chairman Wicker and his team, and my team, for working so collaboratively with us and their hard work in introducing this legislation that the Chairman just mentioned.
I believe it does fundamentally change the way the FAA oversees the certification of large commercial aircrafts. Specifically, our bill, the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act of 2020, will revamp the ODA and make sure that the FAA stays in the driver’s seat of certification.
Under our bill, FAA will once again be responsible for directly appointing and approving the engineers who are tasked with carrying out the certification on behalf of the Administrator. In addition, the FAA will assign safety advisors to closely monitor the performance of these designees, and we also create a new whistleblower protection to fortify the channels of communication and reporting safety. Critically, our bill will end any semblance of self-certification by repealing sections that would give the FAA additional authority for delegation under specific provisions.
Our bill also requires implementation of the NTSB recommendations on safety automation and pilot response, as well as safety management systems for aircraft manufacturers. I believe these new standards would address the issues of multiple flight alerts, and the need for pilot training. So I want to thank Senator Duckworth for her work with me on this legislation, the Aviation Automation and Human Factors Safety Act.
The FAA must keep pace with the skills, and have the technical capacity to handle an increasingly complex aircraft technology. Automation has certainly helped safety, but the amount of automation and uncontrolled commands and alerts can be confusing, particularly when you only have seconds to respond. So understanding the interactions between humans, technology, and operation environment is becoming more critical to safety in aviation. That is why the bill with Chairman Wicker also establishes a Center of Excellence for flight automation and human factors and creates an office, the FAA office of continuing education and training, to make sure that those inspectors maintain and keep the expertise necessary to do the oversight that is required by the FAA.
We also need science and technical advisors to address these developing new technologies.
With technology changing, building skills is important, and I want to thank Senator Moran for introducing the Foreign Civil Aviation Authority Assistance and Capacity-Building Act, which will increase global pilot standards and FAA’s bilateral [partnerships] to improve pilot training. The United States needs to be loud and clear that we want to see strong airmanship. That is to say, a pilot needs to be able to fly the plane without the automation.
And I hope that we, and you, will help lead that effort on an international basis. We also need a strong aviation workforce for the future, and that is why I’ve partnered with Senator Blunt with The National Air Grant Fellowship Program Act of 2020, which would create an aerospace policy fellowship, and leader for the future act.
It’s clear the race for aviation around the globe is on. But we cannot have that race for competition drive us away from a solid safety and certification regime. The solution to that competition, I believe, is to hire and retain the best safety experts that we can find.
So I look forward to hearing the ways in which you believe the FAA needs to improve the process. Again, I want to thank Chairman Wicker for his leadership on the bill that we just introduced, and thank him for his focus on this issue. We do need to hold manufacturers accountable for compliance and safety standards through the process. I look forward to continuing to work with him on that. We need to have certain design features that we know are compliant with the airworthiness standard. No one wants to see a process where, at the end of the process, it’s not clear that the data indicates actual compliance.
I will have many questions about this. So Mr. Dickson, today we are looking forward to the leadership that you will provide in addressing these issues. Safety has to be paramount, and the FAA has to be independent.
So thank you for being here, and I look forward to hearing from both our witnesses. Thank you Mr. Chairman.
Witness Panel 1
The Honorable Stephen DicksonAdministratorFederal Aviation Administration