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Senate Boeing hearings open with fingers pointing back at FAA

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Wednesday’s Boeing safety inquest in the Senate opened with lawmakers blaming a rash of incidents on Boeing planes on not only what they called the company’s poor safety culture, but also on the Federal Aviation Administration for letting it happen on their watch.

During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday to probe what’s going wrong at Boeing after a 737 MAX 9 door plug blew out mid-air and amid growing whistleblower claims, Sen Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), chair of the aviation panel, skewered the FAA for being too hands-off in overseeing a program that essentially allows manufacturers like Boeing to self-certify their aircraft, with FAA oversight.

Testifying before the panel, Tracy Dillinger, Manager for Safety Culture and Human Factors at NASA who has been involved in safety reviews, said one of the foundational practices of a functional safety culture at a company like Boeing is understanding who is ultimately responsible for safety. She said she had reviewed Boeing employee surveys that showed that 95 percent of those responding did not know who their chief safety officer was.

Duckworth said it’s easy to see why employees are confused when “the FAA fails to take action in response to bad behavior.”

“It sends an unmistakable message” that bad behavior is acceptable, Duckworth said, adding the FAA in some cases sat on its hands and allowed the misconduct to happen.

Javier de Luis of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of aeronautics and astronautics, testifying before the panel, said he felt the self-certification program, which Congress has expanded over the years, had gone too far.

“For the last 20 years, every FAA authorization act has pushed more and more responsibility over the fence to the manufacturer side, usually with the understandable objective of increasing efficiency and productivity,” de Luis, who lost his sister on board a 737 MAX 8 crash in 2019 in Ethiopia, told the senators. “The two 737 Max crashes showed that the pendulum had swung too far.”

He noted that a 2020 law Congress passed responding to that crash and another in 2018 mandated some changes to the way the FAA’s delegated-oversight program works, and was at least a response “trying to correct this imbalance.”

A congressionally mandated panel examining Boeing’s safety practices following the 2018 and 2019 crashes that killed 346 people found that employees were also hesitant to report safety concerns for fear of retaliation.

Even after Boeing restructured its self-certification program to create more independence between business, design and engineering units — and Congress passed legislation to strengthen whistleblower protection for workers — the reorganization “still allows opportunities for retaliation to occur,” the report said, “particularly with regards to salary and furlough ranking.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the committee, said that 2020 law did help curtail “the opportunities as your report is saying for retaliation, [but] we still are seeing that interference is occurring.”

“This is unacceptable,” she said.