In this May 8 photo, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliner being built for Turkish Airlines takes off on a test flight in Renton. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

In this May 8 photo, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliner being built for Turkish Airlines takes off on a test flight in Renton. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

FAA criticized for letting Boeing oversee safety of planes

Officials conceded that the government had misjudged the risk of a second 737 Max disaster coming.

By Michael Laris / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration’s top safety manager, facing his most rigorous public questioning since two Boeing jets crashed under similar circumstances, repeatedly defended the FAA’s approach to safety Wednesday but also acknowledged a key agency misjudgment.

Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, sought to blunt criticisms during a Senate hearing that the agency had given Boeing too much power to oversee the safety of the planes it builds. He called the FAA’s system giving companies far-reaching oversight of their own technical work “sound.” The approach allowed the FAA to focus on improving overall safety systems, he said.

Bahrami also conceded that the FAA had misjudged the risk of a second disaster coming so quickly.

Two crashes of new Boeing 737 Max jets within five months in Indonesia and Ethiopia have brought new scrutiny toFAA practices. Certification of the Max specifically, and airplanes in general, remain the subject of ongoing probes.

“We have relied on the industry more than we should … to do the job that we should do to make sure the American public is safe,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who is a pilot, at Wednesday’s hearing.

Bahrami previously served as vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, and before that was a longtime FAA manager overseeing the certification of airplanes built by Boeing in the Seattle area.

Current and former FAA officials have pointed to Bahrami as a key internalchampion of the FAA’s highly delegated approach. The Organization Designation Authorization program gives companies such as Boeing responsibility for much of the detailed, technical work of finding whether government safety standards are being met. Last year, as part of the FAA funding bill, Congress gave Boeing and other firms greater power to oversee themselves under the ODA system.

Carl Burleson, the FAA’s acting deputy administrator, argued that delegation is a critical piece of the U.S. safety record. “It doesn’t mean each decision we’ve made has always been perfect. But I do think the fundamental process of how we went about certifying the Max was sound,” Burleson said.

Critics inside and outside the FAA have pointed to major problems with the certification system.

For the Max, Boeing designed — and the FAA certified the safety of — a flawed automated feature known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Investigators say bad information from an external sensor prompted the MCAS to repeatedly force down the noses of the planes before they crashed, resulting in the deaths of 346 people. Boeing is working on software fixes to address that and a separate potential problem with the flight control computer discovered since the crashes.

Senators pressed Bahrami on why the FAA was not more explicit about the specific dangers of the MCAS feature in an emergency Airworthiness Directive last November. That order said erroneous data could lead to trouble controlling the airplane and “possible impact with terrain.” It ordered airlines to augment 737 Max flight manuals with instructions for how pilots should respond if the plane showed signs of “runaway” controls. Boeing also issued bulletins to customers

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said that the FAA order did not include crucial information about the nature of the problem and Boeing’s plans for a software fix.

“The implication was that this pilot change would be sufficient,” Reed said. “That lack of transparency I think is not appropriate.”

Bahrami said that the FAA joins accident investigations to obtain real-time information to help it protect aircraft. As part of that, the FAA agrees not to disclose “any indication [about] what may have gone wrong in that particular case,” he said.

“That is a very delicate balance for us to play… . From the safety perspective, we felt strongly what we did was adequate,” Bahrami said. “Based on these reviews that come out, we will definitely make adjustments.”

The emergency order was supposed to be an interim step, Bahrami said. After having discussions with airlines and interpreting data from U.S. and Canadian operators, FAA officials thought they had enough time to work with Boeing on the company’s MCAS improvements, he said.

“Based on our risk assessment, we felt we had sufficient time to be able to do the modification, and get the final fix,” Bahrami said. The riskassessment was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Then, the Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed March 10.

Boeing said it “began work on a potential software update shortly after” the October 2018 Indonesia crash. “The safety of everyone flying our airplanes was paramount as the analysis was done and the actions were taken,” the company said.

Talk to us

More in Business

Gillian Montgomery weighs a bag of bird seed at Wild Birds Unlimited on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Bird and cat lovers flock to this Everett bird supply store

Bring on the birds! Locally owned Wild Birds Unlimited store can help turn your backyard into a “seedy” restaurant.

Brielle Holmes, 3, points to a stuffed animal that she likes at Wishes toy store on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023 in Alderwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Local toy store chain got its start as kiosk at Everett Mall

Wishes now operates eight stores, including three in Snohomish County. Its Alderwood mall store is a roomy 7,000 square feet.

Manager Rika Rafael, left, visual merchandiser April Votolato, center, and assistant manager and events coordinator Jaidhara Sleighter stand at the entrance of East West Books & Gifts’ new location Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in downtown Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
‘We were meant to be here’: East West Books Gifts reopens in Edmonds

Located in Seattle before the pandemic, the new store offers books and other resources on meditation, spirituality and yoga.

Members and supporters of the Snohomish and Island County Labor Council gather on Oct. 10 at the Edward D. Hansen Conference Center in Everett. The the Affiliate Labor Champion Award was given to the International Association of Machinists 751. Wes Heard, center, accepted the award on behalf of IAM 751. Photo credit: Snohomish and Island County Labor Council.
Snohomish & Island County Labor Council honors labor leaders

The labor council’s annual Champions Dinner recognized two local labor leaders and a machinists union last month.

Two students walk along a path through campus Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, at Everett Community College in Everett, Washington. The college’s youth-reengagement program has lost its funding, and around 150 students are now without the money they need to attend classes. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Fewer students enroll at state’s public colleges, study says

Enrollment has picked up since the pandemic, but the lag threatens the state’s quest for education equity.

Michelle Roth is a registered nurse in the Providence Emergency Department on Sunday, January 23, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Health career job fair to be held Thursday in Everett

More than 14 health care related employers will attend the Snohomish County/Workforce Snohomish event.

Logo for news use, for stories regarding Washington state government — Olympia, the Legislature and state agencies. No caption necessary. 20220331
State gets $1 million grant to boost small-business exports

Washington’s Department of Commerce will use the federal grant to help small companies increase their export business.

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of education.
Grant to help fund health care program at Edmonds College

  1. The $220,000 grant from Career Connect Washington aims to improve the college’s patient care technician program.

Trader Joe’s customers walk in and out of the store on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Trader Joe’s to move store to Everett Mall, application says

Trader Joe’s could move from its current address — with a tight squeeze of a parking lot — to the former Sears location at Everett Mall.

Starbucks workers and allies participate in a strike and picket organized by Starbucks Workers United during the company's Red Cup Day Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, at a location near Pike Place Market in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
Starbucks workers in Everett, Marysville join national strike

Hundreds of Starbucks union workers at 15 locations across Washington joined the one-day strike.

Summit Everett, a rock climbing gym, in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Summit will move into the former Grand Avenue Marketplace space, a retail location that has been vacant for five years. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Everett climbing gym to close, move to new downtown site

Summit Everett, a Rucker Avenue anchor, will open a new facility next year one block west on Grand Avenue.

A whiteboard inside Richie del Puerto's auto tech classroom at Sno-Isle Technical Skills Center on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Explore apprenticeship programs at free Everett job fair Nov. 16

The Sno-Tech Skills Center job fair features 30 apprenticeship programs from construction to health care.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.